The Problem Is Women; the Problem Is Men | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Problem Is Women; the Problem Is Men 

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THE PROBLEM IS WOMEN; THE PROBLEM IS MEN

at the Briar Street Theatre

To my surprise, many of my hipper friends think musicals so hokey and old-fashioned as to be beneath contempt. One person in particular couldn't understand how I could like a genre rife with shallow and outmoded notions of love, sexuality, and people's proper places in society.

I hope my friend never sees The Problem Is Women; the Problem Is Men, because if she does she'll feel confirmed in the idea that musical theater is no place for interesting or original ideas. Everything about The Problem seems shopworn--cribbed from some other era. The show's premise--pull together a group of characters and have them kvetch and sing about their love problems--is very 70s, but the problems discussed seem culled from half a dozen past decades. One character is still hung up on a campus radical she met in the late 60s. Two other characters, recently divorced from each other, must deal with the 1930s screwball- comedy problem of having to work together though they still love/hate each other. There's even a guy hung up on the 1920s: "Whatever happened to Rudolph Valentino?" he sings at one point. Even the score is derivative, containing so many references to gospel, blues, calypso, tango, pop, and very lite rock that every measure reminds the listener of other, better songs.

The recycled quality of this show would not be half so annoying, however, if Alan Barcus--credited with the show's music, book, and lyrics--had shown the courage of his convictions and actually written a show about the difficulties of romantic love. But he devotes precious little time, for example, to what used to be called the battle of the sexes. Oh, Lucy and Lindy, the bickering divorced couple, snap at each other from time to time; but these fights seem more bits of business meant to burn up stage time than important psychological events. Just how unimportant they are becomes clear near the end of the show, when Lucy turns on a dime from skeptical, ambivalent, angry survivor to bubbly, cheerful, emotionally unscarred woman ready to fall deeply in love in a matter of seconds. Even in this crazy, mixed-up world, I guess, true love is still possible.

Barcus doesn't do a much better job in the other so-called comedy sketches. Most of these humorless bits are too trite, unfocused, or contrived--Theda Bara comes back from the dead to teach two women how to treat a man--to add to our understanding of men and women in general or Barcus's characters in particular.

A clumsy book would be forgivable if Barcus had something to say in his songs. Unfortunately he doesn't, and ultimately that proves the show's undoing. Some of Barcus's lyrics hit home--particularly in the bluesy "Lazy Sunday Mornin"' and in the witty Martin Mull-esque first number: "This is the opening song / Every show's got to have an opening song." But more often than not Barcus's lyrics are insipid.

"Love is all confetti / It's magic in the air" goes one song early in the show. "If you believe / If you believe / If you believe in love / It could be everywhere." Such sugary sentiments would set the Candy Man's teeth on edge. But in the next act Barcus outdoes himself: "Falling in love is a miracle / Suddenly walking hand in hand / It's hard to explain a miracle / It's something we never understand." Twenty-two words to say that falling in love is nice. The real low point in the show, however, comes when Barcus stoops to what is possibly the most overused play on words in contemporary songwriting: "If love's supposed to feel so good / How come it hurts so bad?" I could go on.

I began to wonder whether Barcus really subscribed to his show's message--that you have to "believe in love." Or whether he secretly agreed with a more cynical theory advanced by one character: "Love is a plot device they use in movies and trashy novels." This might explain why Barcus's work so often seems trite or uninspired. He constructs a whole song around the idea that love is "that same old emotion." That same old emotion? Can you imagine a less romantic way to talk about love, short of calling it that hormonal discharge that guarantees the continuation of the species?

Certainly the six cast members exhibit signs of not really believing the show's message. Though they're supposed to be telling us their innermost secrets, they have a lot of trouble delivering their lines convincingly--and especially when those lines are preposterous, unfunny, or just plain silly. During the show's forced happy ending, Lucy (Gayla Goehl) and Jack (Jim Price) meet at a singles bar, fall in love, and patly deliver some of the most sickening lines in the show. "This is a love story--" Lucy tells us in that bland, matter-of-fact narrator's way, pausing at precisely the right moment for Jack to take up where she left off: "By two people who think it's possible."

The cast seems on much firmer ground with the show's occasional cynical lines. "Here's what I know about love: Don't mess with it!" is flawlessly delivered by Seraiah Carol, easily the most interesting actor in the show. But mostly this cast, like other musical-theater casts, only really excel during the songs; there they showed they have the expertise to soar, if only they didn't have to spend all their energy overcoming Barcus's shortcomings as lyricist and bookwriter.

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