The Wall of Water | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Wall of Water 

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Parallax Theater Company

at the Calo Theater

What would you get if you took every French farce, every 70s American sitcom, every Neil Simon comedy, scrambled all the pages, fed them into a scanner, and asked a computer to come up with a new play for the 90s? You might very well end up with something like The Wall of Water, by Sherry Kramer, now playing at the Calo Theater in a presentation by the Parallax Theater Company.

The Wall of Water, something of a postmodernist sitcom, is a fast-paced barrage of one-line jokes, mistaken identities, slammed doors, sexual high jinks and the occasional philosophical revelation. It's set, as most of these things are, in a "huge apartment on the upper west side" of Manhattan, an abode inhabited by four roommates, each one battier than the next. Judy, an allergist and researcher, works herself into an orgasmic frenzy while reading the New York Times food section; Denise, the so-called party girl, delights in designer dresses and keeps a file of her sexual conquests; Wendi is a pill-popping loony who's driving herself and everyone around her to the brink of a nervous breakdown; and Meg seems to think of only one thing--killing Wendi. Add to this mixture a motley assortment of male characters--a jittery nurse, a sweet yuppie grieving over his mother's death, a pompous cancer specialist, and an eccentric old bird of a doctor who promotes his theories on pain on late-night television--and before long you know that someone will sleep with the wrong person, someone will take the wrong medication, and a fair number of doors will be slammed.

You make certain allowances for a comedy of this nature. You don't expect characters to act rationally. You suspend your disbelief for as long as you can. You accept that characters will reveal only as much information as the upcoming joke requires. You don't mind that everybody has to act like a flat-footed Wile E. Coyote in order to fulfill the needs of the plot.

You make these allowances, I should say, if the script actually works. But this one doesn't. And no amount of laugh-track guffawing from the audience can convince me that it does. The jokes, the coincidences, the other improbabilities are either predictable or not funny. A few examples: Wendi fears she has been poisoned by a mosquito, so she grabs a cookie cutter with which to cut open her arm. "We can't have everybody cutting holes in their flesh," quips Judy, the allergist. "They'd look like Swiss cheese." (Audience laughter.) Meg is sick of the apartment, wants to move out. It is the perfect place, she concedes, with low rent and illegal cable, but there's a catch: "You have to spend your life with a roommate from Mars," she shouts. (Audience laughter.) One more: Meg, threatened with an injection from a nurse who thinks Meg is Wendi, attempts to show her identification. "I'm a psychotherapeutic nurse, not the highway patrol," the nurse cracks. "Driver's licenses don't mean anything to me." (Audience laughter.)

Kramer seems to be striving for some kind of philosophical point in all this--something about the absurdity of life in the big city or the ridiculousness of human interactions--but when she tries to get deep, she only succeeds in getting preachy. The characters do their most lucid thinking in the john, and they deliver monologues about their warped perceptions of the world from this sanctuary. Judy, the allergist, tells us that the reason we're all so screwed up is because we're allergic to each other. Denise posits that our successes as children lead us to have false expectations as adults. Some of the insights offered in the bathroom are worth pondering, but they also highlight the hollowness of the rest of the play. It's as if Chrissy, Jack, and Janet on Three's Company were working on the side on their philosophy PhDs and paused every once in a while to talk about Descartes before trying to figure out who left her underwear in Jack's room.

Parallax Theater does what it can to rescue Kramer's script. Victor D'Altorio has whipped his cast into a farcical frenzy and keeps the dialogue moving at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, that pace rarely varies. And two hours of running, screaming, and shouting get awfully shrill--much of this production has Excedrin written all over it. It's impossible to fault the cast; they perform their cartoonish duties unabashedly. And Daniel Jackson's set, which cuts off the top half of the apartment, is positively inspired. The Calo Theater's seats are on steep risers, and the set enhances the effect of peering down into the world of these characters.

It's almost as if Kramer, after watching an eternity of sitcoms, had decided to play a joke on all of us and create a sitcom from hell. She would introduce a rogue's gallery of broad, wacky characters, use comic timing and comedy's pace, leave spaces for laughter, create a mounting stack of comedic improbabilities--essentially come up with the perfect, quintessential sitcom. The only thing missing would be a sense of humor.


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