This Old Man Came Rolling Home/The Playboy of the Western World | Letters | Chicago Reader

This Old Man Came Rolling Home/The Playboy of the Western World 

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Victory Gardens Theater


Erin Go Bragh! Irish American Theatre Company

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Louise is a gynecologist whose birth control has just failed and she's happy about it. If you can buy that, you should have no trouble with the rest of This Old Man Came Rolling Home, James Sherman's retread of that old stalwart, the Domestic Sex Comedy (DSC). This one comes complete with not one but two first-act telephone monologues (but no act-three drunk scene).

After a blithe "No contraceptive is 100 percent. We got lucky," Dr. Louise proceeds to cheerfully anticipate having a baby. But the father, Benjamin, an inventor of adult social-interaction games, is not as enthusiastic. Since Louise has no intention of quitting her job, he points out, she will have to run off to deliver other women's babies whenever her pager summons, even if it means neglecting her own child--a consideration his fiancee simply shrugs off, saying "We'll manage." Louise's career is not what's eating Benjamin, however, but what he perceives as his own inadequacies as a man, misgivings he's been trying to banish through psychoanalysis (speaking to his shrink over a speaker phone when he can't make it into the office for his session) and Robert Bly-style men's groups.

The therapeutic value of these efforts will be put to the test when Benjamin is reunited, on the anniversary of his mother's death, with his father, a retired county judge he remembers as a stern, unbending patriarch. But papa Nate has spent a year at Esalen and arrives with a Berkeley wardrobe, a go-with-the-flow attitude, and a girlfriend named Jack half his age and--you guessed it--pregnant. All this is too much for Benjamin, who grows more and more confused until Nate finally imparts some fatherly wisdom, to the effect that Benjamin should trust in God and let Him guide matters.

Marriage, Parenthood, and Faith--sound familiar? You'd never guess this was the 90s, after the feminist movement, legalized abortion, and the advent of the sensitive male. Despite Louise's token acknowledgment of alternative courses of action and her presumed knowledge of the consequences when the father is reluctant to marry, we never doubt that she'll have her baby and get Benjamin to marry her. Nor do we ever doubt that Benjamin will accept his ball and chain happily once he forgets all this men's lib stuff and just does like nature intended.

Jack, 28 years old with a PhD in cultural anthropology, provides a refreshingly egalitarian point of view, but she's a voice crying in the wilderness. Jack commends Benjamin for not running away, as many men in his situation would; but Louise laughs at his search for spiritual serenity and scoffs at his conscientious approach to procreational responsibilities. ("I'm not sure I'm ready for this yet," Benjamin protests, and his would-be wife retorts, "You won't know until you try. I think you'd make a wonderful father.") This mommy-knows-best attitude is heartily endorsed by the playwright, who makes a running gag out of one of Benjamin's men's group members who weeps uncontrollably into Benjamin's answering machine--a crying man is still an object of ridicule here. The oodles of charm exuded by director Dennis Zacek's cast--most notably by Byrne Piven as the hearty Nate and Rengin Altay as Jack (proving an actress can be both ingenuous and intelligent)--masks the seriousness of the issues, sliding us along the schmaltz to an easy all-you-need-is-love ending.

But Marriage, Parenthood, and Faith have never been easy, and Sherman and the other DSC purveyors know that. There have always been good reasons not to couple and spawn. But in this play, whose characters are uniformly mature and moneyed, the only obstacles to parenting are the characters' insecurities ("All this time I've spent 'getting in touch with my child,'" Benjamin marvels, beaming at his new son, "and here he is"). The mindless simplicity of Sherman's exhortations to be fruitful and multiply didn't make me want to run out and have babies, but for those who have the privilege of choice and need permission to reproduce, Sherman's DSC offers the assurance that choosing to go with the status quo is all right.

The 1907 premiere of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World caused something of a dustup among Irish Catholics. They suspected that the Protestant playwright was casting aspersions by depicting the good citizens of County Mayo as fools who elevate a scruffy farm boy and his tale of patricide to celebrity status. Time has robbed the play of both its controversy and its relevance--written in the slang-sprinkled lyrical style thought to be characteristic of rural Hibernians, the speeches here are all but incomprehensible to modern American audiences, despite a six-page glossary in the program.

That being understood, the Erin Go Bragh! Irish American Theatre Company's production has much to recommend it. Ellen Davis and Walt Kurek's realistic set has been well researched and meticulously constructed. Gregory Ross DeMatoff, Christine Benk, and Lauren J. Polenske manage to keep the script's sense from getting completely lost in the dialect. In this they are ably supported by Neil Wycoff as a publican, Shawn Douglas (one of the only reasons to have seen last year's The War Notebooks, overacting here shamelessly) as a guilt-riddled wimp, and Arch Harmon as the not-dead-yet father, a fire-eyed bog-stomping scarecrow whose portrayal should garner this actor plenty of work around Halloween.

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Monet and Chicago Art Institute of Chicago
February 11
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