The plot thickens. In any decent stage play, that's what usually occurs around the 20-minute point in Act 1. We get some conflict, some trouble. Stuff starts to happen between protagonist and antagonist. Blanche DuBois moves into the Kowalskis' place, cramping Stanley's style. Felix and Oscar have a tiff over kitchen chores. Elwood P. Dowd comes home with Harvey, a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit.
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.
The real star of A Girl's Guide to Chaos is the set by Randel Wright. Paying tribute to '80s artist Keith Haring, Wright created a towering wall of black and white panels that evoke the skyline of Manhattan. Hundreds of cartoon hieroglyphics pack each panel, including flying saucers, TV screens, dollar signs, pyramids, snakes, phalluses, martini glasses and repetitions of Haring's trademark crawling babies and barking dogs. It's a symphony of urban iconography. In this show there's not one memorable line of dialogue, but you might leave humming the set.
The set for In the Belly of the Beast at Kitchen Dog, designed by Clay Houston and lit by Linda Blase, defines the acting space in the Heldt/Hall Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary as a dank, claustrophobic cell squeezed between banks of chairs. Out in the open sits a filthy, seatless toilet. At various times, the audience, facing each other across the strip of cell floor, plays the role of parole board, inmates and witnesses to inhuman acts. The actors often address the crowd directly.
At the center of Beast slithers Jack Henry Abbott (Dan Day), a lifer so hardened and dehumanized by his decades in stir, he makes Schillinger, the bald neo-Nazi tyrant on HBO's first-rate prison drama Oz, seem as cuddly as the Cowardly Lion. Over the course of Beast's two acts, Abbott recounts episodes in his life, from a childhood spent in abusive foster homes to years of reform schools, detention homes and finally, state penitentiaries. He murders another inmate. He reads books and begins to write about the truth of prison life, the million ways the soul is starved, from lack of sunlight to the constant threat of violence. Abbott writes to Norman Mailer, who makes Abbott's literary aspirations a cause célèbre. In 1981 Abbott is paroled to Manhattan, where the glitterati take him up as a pet even as he spends nights in a Bowery halfway house. In six weeks, he has killed again--a stupid, senseless attack on a waiter--and he ends up back behind bars.
Certainly it's a compelling story, told well enough by journalists and in Abbott's own words over the years. Beast, however, tries so hard to generate sympathy for Abbott, who died in 2002, and to make us believe he was a victim of the system and not a cold-blooded killer, that it imprisons itself in its warped point of view.
The script is a chaotic hodgepodge of speeches and exposition. Much of Beast--edited, arranged and directed by Adrian Hall, who premiered this work at the Dallas Theater Center in 1984--comes from court transcripts and verbatim testimony from Abbott's parole hearings. Staying true to the documents may guarantee the words are authentic, but it also forces actors to choke out huge chunks of choppy, illogically arranged verbiage. Everything sounds read and memorized. When the words are Abbott's, the tone shifts to a realistic flatness, but even that is skewed by actor Dan Day's over-emoted delivery. By the end, he's screaming.
"This is not fiction or reality TV," one of the actors tells the audience. "This really happened." And that's why this material would be better served on film, not on a stage. Director Hall has even tried to play movie director by editing scenes with smash-cuts and blackouts. Blase's lighting provides fades, close-ups and wide shots. One wall of the space is a movie screen, with huge, incongruous black and white slides of nude men and women flashing up from time to time. Artsy but meaningless.
That sums up this whole approach to theater. Lots of attitude, not much story to hang it on. In the continuing saga of the American stage, it seems the plots are thinning.
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