The Wager/Shadowlands | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Wager/Shadowlands 

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THE WAGER

Roark Productions

at Puszh Studios

SHADOWLANDS

Borealis Productions and Puszh Company

at Puszh Studios

The fact that The Wager, by Mark (Children of a Lesser God) Medoff, is an early play is no excuse. So is his equally phony When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?, another actors' exercise that intimidates and bores. Yet actors seem drawn to these loser roles like deer to headlights: the new Roark Productions just cut its teeth on this blunt Wager.

The play's mean-spirited plot centers on the title bet, a dare between two college roommates who are stereotypical opposites. A bored, bitter, amoral teaching assistant, Leeds (Anthony J. Redelsperger), challenges his dumb-jock, macho-pig roomie Ward (Todd Sandler) to fornicate twice in two days with Honor (Janet Van Wess), a graduate student, without getting killed or wounded by Ron (Kenneth R. Anderson), Honor's geeky science-graduate husband.

The rest, idiotic gunplay and tedious, red-herring plot developments, is thuddingly predictable. So are the joyless revelations--Honor isn't happy with her sexless marriage of eight and a half years, Ron is a weenie who hunts deer with an automatic rifle, Ward is a Spur Posse womanizer who's constant only to his mirror, and, least surprising, Leeds is an intellectual bully who hides behind words and, yes, is afraid to love!

It's hard to believe this was fresh in the 70s, when Medoff lifted it from pulp fiction. Today his smart-ass psychologizing seems a paltry excuse for the play's real menu, gratuitous threats of violence and ill-disguised misogyny. (Honor's name is just the first of many jokes inflicted on her.)

Laura Winstin's overwrought staging does little to discourage the gag reflex; in fact she emphasizes everything that's most improbable about the play: the automatic sex, the pretend violence, Leeds's secret tenderness. Redelsperger plays Leeds in one continuous snarl interrupted only by self-pitying whines; perhaps it's all you can do with this slimy blowhard, a sarcastic, obnoxious jerk you'd cross the street to avoid.

Sandler, as the stud louse, sinks into the stereotype like a trouper. Since Ward doesn't change or grow, Sandler never gets the chance to make us care about him. Van Wess tries to give Honor what little dignity Medoff was too lazy to remove, but essentially the character is defined by negatives--she exists to bring out the worst in the men. Though Ron is a thankless role, Anderson, an apparently attractive actor, manages to make it graceless too, a clumsy impersonation of a repellent dork. It's hard to dumb down this script, but he does.

Sharing Puszh Studios is a non-Equity version of William Nicholson's Shadowlands--not for a moment to be confused with Interplay's excellent local premiere (which closes December 19), a superb staging that easily overshadows this redundant revival.

Nicholson's work movingly depicts the true-life love that briefly bloomed between the cloistered British theologian/fantasy writer C.S. "Jack" Lewis and poet Joy Davidman, a divorced American with enough spunk for ten people. Initially a technical alliance intended to win her the right to stay in England, their marriage became a gentle union of opposites, Joy's directness of thought and openness of heart a tonic to Jack's Oxonian reserve and cerebral maunderings.

Their unsought happiness yields to unsought sorrow when they discover Joy has bone cancer, and Jack learns that his dubious theory that God exacts suffering as the price of our humanity is hard to hold. But the tragedy also forces him to overcome his fear of the larger world, and he grows from the loss beyond any of his pre-Joy complacency. Inevitably Shadowlands, like La traviata, La Boheme, and "The Ring of the Nibelungen," homes in on the powerful theme of a weak man redeemed by the love of a good woman. If Nicholson puts new clothes on an old mannequin, they're cut cleanly and fit well.

Unfortunately, they're threadbare in this lumbering, bargain-basement venture from Borealis Productions and the Puszh Company, which loses much of the play's warmth and dilutes most of its ideas. Aiming at the obvious and missing the heart, Chris-anne Blankenship's staging so stresses the culture clash between Joy and Jack that it loses the love.

The least bad work comes from young Brendan Hutt, who plays Joy's dour son Douglas with surprising solidity and gravity, and from Robert J. Bailey II, an eloquent if rather resigned C.S. Lewis; though uneven in accent and preoccupied with the man's British repression, Bailey takes his part seriously, especially Jack's lament for a lost love.

Sadly, that love isn't remotely suggested. There's no spark, no soul sharing between Bailey's reticent Jack and Alexandra Billings's breathless and unreal Joy. Playing her as smugly sarcastic or soulfully intense (and convincing in neither extreme), Billings lurches from a wisecracking stand-up delivery to a Method intensity that borders on the inaudible. Not surprisingly, the opening-night audience seemed to view their marriage as a sitcom mismatch and not the complex meeting of minds Nicholson intended.

A further flaw is the clumsy blocking required by the set's crude alignment. The audience members sit along opposite walls, facing one another, and the action takes place in the center. The actors turn their backs on one another or huddle incongruously in a circle of chairs; and, awkwardly, they never leave the room, so the audience has a full view of them as they wait along one edge of the playing area to come onstage. Add to this an erratic pacing and you get a very dim Shadowlands.

In a recent review I described Patrick Dennis's Auntie Mame as a memoir. It takes the form of a novel, however.

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