By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This is what makes plays play. Characters enter, start talking to each other and then a story unfolds. If the words the playwright writes make some little bit of sense and ignite our interest in how things onstage turn out, if the plot thickens before 8:30 p.m. and resolves itself shortly after 10, then it's been a good night at the theater. Blanche goes on her date with the men in white coats. Felix moves upstairs with the Pigeon sisters. Elwood and Harvey hop happily off to bunnyland. And we theatergoers head for our cars, fanning ourselves with the program, saying, "Wasn't that good?"
For a few more nights like those...sigh. Instead, what we're getting with distressing frequency on local stages right now are noisy, overwrought productions of new works that, in an attempt to be fresh, original and experimental, ignore the most basic, tried and true theatrical conventions. In so many of these new shows, there is no plot to thicken, no real characters to love or hate. Actors narrate action instead of engaging in any. The fourth wall disappears as everyone onstage speaks directly to everyone in the audience. And worse, not much stuff happens up there, meaning 10 o'clock can't come soon enough for us stiffs in the cheap seats.
The latest examples of this new wave of pseudo-plays are the two new productions at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Kitchen Dog Theater. CDT's comedy, A Girl's Guide to Chaos, is a string of unconnected, mildly humorous monologues based on the all-men-suck sex columns of New York writer Cynthia Heimel. KDT's In the Belly of the Beast, a two-act drama drawn from the trial documents and personal writings of Jack Henry Abbott, is a live-action documentary profiling a murderer who spent all but a few months of his adult life in prison before hanging himself in a cell. It's depressing as hell and the devil to decipher, so confusing are the script's choppy bits of dialogue and the constant shifts of unidentified speakers played by three actors doubling and tripling roles.
In subject matter, these two shows are polar opposites. The ditzy joking about bad dates and penis sizes in Chaos could actually serve as a life-affirming antidote to the sickening accounts of torture and rape in Beast. But for their obvious differences in tone and content, the shows fail as viable works for the stage for many of the same reasons. Without any plot lines to cling to, without clearly defined characters for the audience to identify with, both Chaos and Beast must rely on the power of their writers' words to carry their momentum. And here they come up short. Without so much as a skeletal story, these scripts are reduced to page after page of pretentious, self-conscious blah-blah-blah. These are essays, not plays.
In A Girl's Guide to Chaos, the more engagingly entertaining of the two shows, four women and one man fill up two hours musing in monologues about the dearth of sponge-worthy singles in Manhattan circa 1987. Only a couple of times do the five actors in the cast talk to one another or interact in any way. Instead it's mostly stand-up comedy pretending to be theater, and it's hacky stand-up at that. Heimel's idea of a joke is to have a woman say, "I don't know whether to kill myself or go bowling." How Heimel must have plotzed when another New York City sex columnist, Candace Bushnell, hit the lottery in the late '90s with Sex & the City, the HBO series based on Bushnell's writings from a rival publication. Difference: Bushnell is funny.
Sex & the City works so well because it actually has plot elements, as well as lively characters and bitchy wit. Plot-free Chaos misses on all counts. Heimel gives her characters names--Cynthia (Marisa Diotalevi), Cleo (Stephanie Young), Rita (Sue Loncar), Lurene (Lisa Hassler) and Jake (Ian Leson)--but doesn't provide them distinctive personalities. Any of the characters in Chaos could deliver any of the monologues without changing the meaning (not that there is much). The monologues, all written in Heimel's acerbic voice, sound exactly like what they were originally, newspaper and magazine columns. You can almost hear the semicolons. Sometimes Heimel tosses in some half-baked spiritual bon mots to break up the dirty talk, but too often this show just sounds smutty. "If you can't fry it or fuck it, forget it," says Rita, the spangle-clad disco diva played exuberantly by Loncar, CDT's founder.
Written in the mid-'80s, Chaos isn't quite clever enough to revel in its innate nostalgia. Heimel drops in some offhanded references to The Love Boat, Eat to Win and Cocoon, but now those mostly serve as time stamps. The few real laughs in Chaos arise not from the script, but from added attractions supplied by CDT's high-spirited cast, director Doug Miller and scenic designer Randel Wright. To augment Heimel's flimsy material, the actors wrote some of their own monologues, notably Lisa Hassler's Act 1 opener as a hippie sex therapist named "Chakra Conn." Without a costume designer, Loncar raided her own collection of now-vintage '80s fashions, providing a seemingly endless parade of poofy, sparkly, spangly, lacy Madonna-wear worthy of display in the Smithsonian. The lone man in the cast, Ian Leson, isn't spared the wardrobe horrors. He gets a huge howl just for his entrance in a pale linen suit, polo shirt collar up, sleeves pushed to the elbows like Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice. Like the "dork knob" ponytail for men, that's a look that deserved to die with that decade.