The Family Goes Nuclear | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Family Goes Nuclear 


Organic Touchstone Company

at Touchstone Theatre

By Albert Williams

Here's a nearly 60-year-old play whose plot might inspire the themes of next week's Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones shows: "Boys Who Sleep With Their Fathers' Girlfriends" and "Mothers and Sons--How Close Is Too Close?" Jean Cocteau's 1938 hit Les parents terribles lay neglected for decades until Great Britain's Royal National Theatre commissioned a new text from English translator Jeremy Sams and the play was rediscovered for the age of tabloid talk shows. Titled Indiscretions, the National's 1994 revival and a subsequent Broadway production revealed a flawed but intriguing ensemble showpiece. On the surface an old-fashioned domestic melodrama with a veneer of continental elegance, the play today can be seen as an important forerunner of the absurd satires of domestic dysfunction that now dominate our theater, from the works of Albee, Kopit, Shepard, and Durang to the off-off-Loop plethora of postcollegiate sitcom spoofs. This shrewd actors' vehicle also offers its five-person cast a chance to dramatize the twists and turns by which "proper" people are ensnared by their darkest impulses. In Organic Touchstone's earnest, well-designed staging, brilliant performances in two major roles and Cocteau's often ingenious plotting make for strong, offbeat entertainment.

Reportedly written on an eight-day opium bender, Les parents terribles marked a deliberate effort by the protean Cocteau to reinvent himself: the aging avant-gardist hoped to become a mainstream master by, in his own words, "resuming the tradition of boulevard theatre" that had dominated the belle epoque in which he'd come of age. Ever the provocateur, Cocteau laced his theatrical throwback with modern shock appeal. The play's characters--doting mother, hardworking father, dutiful son, and slightly comical old-maid aunt--at first appear to inhabit a traditional nurturing nest. But it's really a pit of destruction in which the family's "intimate relations" (to use the play's traditional English title prior to Sams's translation) are infected by hypocrisy and selfishness. The mother, Yvonne, ignores her husband George while clinging to their boy, Michael, with almost incestuous intensity. Yvonne's spinster sister Leo, meanwhile, has loved George for 23 silent, suffering years, during which she's channeled her passion into housekeeping--none too successfully, for their apartment is a model of shabby-genteel disorder, nicknamed by its inhabitants the "gypsy camp."

A crisis erupts when spoiled, naive, 22-year-old Michael suddenly announces his intention to leave home and live with his lover, an "older woman" of 25 named Madeleine--with whom, unbeknownst to Michael, George has been carrying on an affair. The parents and Leo, driven by their separate but equally ugly obsessions, scheme to wreck Michael and Madeleine's relationship, bringing the play to a tragic climax foreshadowed in the opening scene, when Yvonne nearly dies of a self-injected insulin overdose.

This was the stuff of scandal in Cocteau's day. Premiered at Paris's city-owned Theatre des Ambassadeurs, the show was soon evicted after municipal authorities judged it immoral because of its suggestions of incest (also the implied theme of Cocteau's earlier novel, Les enfants terribles). Within days it had reopened at a different theater, where its notoriety made it a sold-out smash that played for nearly a year--until the stirrings of world war cut its run short.

Today, of course, Cocteau's story seems almost tame, even quaint. The emotional connection between Michael and Yvonne--a disguised portrait of the relationship between the actor Jean Marais (Cocteau's lover, for whom the role of Michael was written) and his mother--is never physically consummated, so the taboo of incest is never really broken. The rivalry between father and son (notably, Cocteau named George after his own father, who killed himself when Cocteau was ten) seems to build toward a violent confrontation, then fades as Cocteau refocuses on Yvonne's suicidal jealousy. And despite this production's updating with such trappings as a CD player and in-line skates, the script's moral and sentimental presumptions mark it as a period piece; it's impossible to accept a young man as childishly innocent as Michael--a boy so pure people swear on him as they would on a Bible--in a day when a teenager delivers and discards her baby during a high school prom.

To be convincing, Indiscretions needs a hothouse intensity that forces its subtext of oedipal love and hate center stage. Susan V. Booth's staging achieves such an intensity over the first two acts, starting as droll comedy. Kathleen Doyle as Yvonne, speaking in a raspy baritone halfway between Tallulah Bankhead and Lucille Ball, illuminates the character's eccentricity and her dominance over the family--especially Michael, played with puppyish playfulness by Daniel Gold (until June 18, when he'll be replaced by Steven J. Anderson). Their unself-conscious mutual affection is mirrored in act two by Michael and Madeleine--played by Lusia Strus as a strong, almost masculine woman who tends to her late-blooming mama's boy with a delicious combination of maternal concern and dominatrix's lust (Madeleine's role as surrogate mother is reinforced by Strus's voice, almost as husky as Doyle's).

But the comedy shifts to irony-tinged horror in the second act's gripping last scene, as Jim Ortlieb's George confronts Madeleine with her infidelity and his determination to destroy her relationship with Michael. Ortlieb depicts with incredible precision a man coming apart, his fatherly concern (how could he let his son be involved with a slut?) colliding with his humiliation as a jilted lover. Angrily throwing books one moment, calmly rationalizing the situation the next, he begs and bullies Madeleine into agreeing to his demands, then caps his victory by coolly, cruelly placing his hand on her breast as she sits in paralyzed passivity--and we watch in fascination and outrage.

Unfortunately, the terror and tension established by Ortlieb and Strus dissipate in the third act: Doyle and Gold fail to generate the magnetism needed as Yvonne and Michael's turbulent relationship enters its final, fatal stage. Cocteau conceived these roles for specific actors (and later directed them in the film version): the charismatic alcoholic Yvonne de Bray, whose stormy personal life fed her powerful stage and screen persona, and Marais, a youth of almost godlike beauty when Les parents terribles was written. Doyle and Gold are solid actors but come nowhere near the star power their roles require; that, plus Cocteau's perverse evasion of the conflict he set up at the end of act two, leaves the final third of this Indiscretions feeling strangely unresolved.

Eschewing the elaborate look of the recent Broadway revival, Booth depicts this character-driven tale in smartly calculated stage pictures enhanced by simple but dramatically telling designs: Joseph P. Tilford's set, Linda Roethke's costumes, and Kevin Snow's lights. Color is crucial. All things associated with Yvonne are in passionate shades of red and purple: her grape-colored boa and negligee, the discarded scarves strewn about the room, the liquor she drinks, the settee on which she sprawls in languorous self-pity while bemoaning the treachery of her 22-year-old "baby." In contrast is the whiteness that surrounds Leo, (the estimable Linda Kimbrough), a woman so tight and tidy she even paces in right-angle formation: the elegant robe she pulls primly closed, the chair on which she sits to darn the family socks, the lace-curtained window in front of which she stands to watch her sister, with a benevolent smile that disguises a lifetime of resentment. White also dominates Madeleine's stylishly spare apartment, with its neat rows of beautifully bound, never-read books--so unlike the sloppy stacks that clutter the "gypsy camp," whose emotional and physical chaos Michael longs to escape.

Despite its imperfections, Indiscretions makes a worthy finale to the first season of the Organic Touchstone Company, a merger of two troupes with very inconsistent track records. With its plans to sell the old Organic building on Clark Street and renovate its Halsted Street headquarters, the company is demonstrating its business savvy. And Indiscretions, following on the heels of well-played productions of David Hare's Racing Demon, Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Brian Friel's Aristocrats, shows Organic Touchstone to be serious artistically as well--a hopeful sign in the ever shakier world of off-Loop theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest.

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