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The Fan Club 

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Chicago Dramatists Workshop

A good hit-and-run Second City sketch would say more about couch potatoes than The Fan Club does in 110 excruciating minutes--and it would say it with accoutrements this play simply lacks, like wit, conflict, and surprise.

To start, what Chicago playwright Joe Urbanik is out to indict isn't exactly front-page news: how excessive television watching makes life a spectator sport and TV viewers passive voyeurs, automatons whose only happiness lies in--you guessed it--vicarious thrills. This more-than-twice-told tale has been seen in (to name a few) Coming Attractions, The Stranger in Stanley's Room, Sixty-Six Scenes of Halloween, Network, and The King of Comedy--plus a lot of good hit-and-run Second City sketches. (Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, though it concerns movies, is even about a fan club.) So you'd think if a playwright is digging up other dogs' bones, it's because he's onto some buried treasure.

Instead the Chicago Dramatists Workshop gives us a world premiere consisting of reruns, a textbook case of the breathless discovery of the obvious. Urbanik's setup is sitcom-simple and deadly dull: five self-made losers are waiting for a self-made winner. The winner is Mickey Morrissey, Kankakee's local boy made good. A successful major-league baseball star and media celebrity, Mickey's returning home after a 15-year absence, and his "fan club" is about to throw a welcome-home party and bask in the reflected glow of his television glory.

The hosts are Ralph and Alice (no comment), the only members of the fan club who actually knew Mickey. Ralph is a downtrodden, debt-ridden mailman who lives on a diet of Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and The People's Court; dreams of sudden quiz-show success; and (like his namesake, Kramden) keeps hatching crackbrained get-rich schemes (his latest is a battery-operated jump rope). His chief worry: "Do you ever think there's a big joke out there that everyone's in on but us?" What's most important about Ralph, though he doesn't let the others know this, is that he resents Mickey--for the limousine that's picking him up at the airport, for turning his back on his friends and never looking back, and for getting so big that he makes Ralph feel small.

Alice once slept with Mickey, which makes her a different sort of fan. Now, when she isn't working at "Burger Chef" or scrimping to make ends meet, she nestles down next to her sofa spud and they chow down junk food and stare at the omnipresent downstage TV set. When they talk, it's to comment on shows they've seen. If they have sex, it must be only after the national anthem.

The other fans, like Ralph and Alice, exist only to prove the playwright's points. Howard is a neurotic sports reporter obsessed with his own insignificance (he once got a face full of shaving cream when he tried to interview the great Mickey--but the chump's still a true believer). Then there's Trixie (of course), who confesses "I'm always so hungry," and proves it. Her husband, Ed, is a professional wrestler whose character is called the "American Dream"--but he just got demoted to playing Adolf Hitler (this makes for some truly thudding jokes). Ed informs us, with awesome profundity, that "the 'American Dream' is over."

Of course, like Godot, Mickey never arrives. Unlike Godot, he's blown up at the airport by Libyan terrorists. (To really prove the point that life isn't fair, of course Mickey's death appears on TV, more real than the fans' lives.) The fan club party now turns funereal as Urbanik halts what little momentum he'd achieved to hand the characters five glaringly gratuitous interior monologues, which they emote in front of the tragedy-filled television screen. (Ralph: "I'd like my lousy 15 minutes!")

Needing something to worship, they finally erect a television shrine to Mickey (a baseball cap on top of a goldfish bowl), ask it what they secretly longed to ask Mickey, then watch an interminable episode of Wheel of Fortune. Finally (there are at least four endings to this play), in a sort of revenge of the dispossessed, Howard decides to create a new Mickey--by turning wrestler Ed into a media hulk named Zeus. And finally Ed and Trixie head home, while in a sort of minor breakthrough, honeymooners Ralph and Alice finally decide to play a card game (based on TV) instead of watching television before going to bed.

So it ends, life imitating art. A play that supposedly savages television forces us to spend two hours watching losers lose, and if that isn't a passive, deadening experience, I'll turn in my boob tube. Worse, you can't change the channel.

Ronald Falzone's staging treats The Fan Club with a tender loving care that makes you want to scream, playing straight the banalities that could only work if stylized. Gary Brichetto as salt-of-the-earth Ralph, Cathy Bieber as helpless helpmate Alice, Mitchell Lester as wired-up Howard, Gillian Kelly as alimentary-canal Trixie, and Rich Komenich as the future Zeus (he's the most persuasive and human of the four) are all caught up in a ghastly Night of the Living Cliches. Perversely enough, television escapes this play unscathed, while theater is made to look smaller than life. And that's one trick I hope Urbanik keeps to himself.


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