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Actors are sometimes described as temperamental creatures, but I’m here to tell you, that’s nonsense. They are lambs. They will, when urged on by directors, docilely acquiesce to almost anything in the name of art. They will even walk right on stage and perform T.J. Edwards’ neo-Orwellian political fable, Chips.
A saga of skullduggery in a fictional totalitarian state called Federgolia, Chips is every bit as cutesy as its Mouse That Roared-esque setting. The evening centers on milquetoast musicologist Robert S. Chipsdale (Christopher Henley), whose lectures on Bach, Beethoven, and other banned, “pre-cathartic” composers have somehow convinced Federgolia’s moronic regime that he should be TeleDivine Propaganda Network’s “Voice of Truth.” Quickly rising to enormous power, Chipsdale finds himself torn between the attentions of elite seductress Sonja Fedora, the advice of idiot revolutionary Lech Walenski, and the needs of his prole buddies Bob and Connie Cramp. Dempskis battle anti-Dempskis, the regime’s happy-graphs plummet in tandem with its supply of pseudo-coffee, and citizens with the wherewithal to do so keep attempting to flee to Bureautoria.
There’s moremuch, much more in this wildly overwritten three-hour epicand sadly, it’s nothing if not consistent. But that hasn’t kept the performers at Clark Street Playhouse from leaping into their roles with an enthusiasm bordering on outright mania. Henley tackles the part of Chipsdale with what might be termed Pee-wee Hermanish glee, first appearing in underwear and socks like some overgrown schoolboy at his first gym class, sounding as if he’s swallowed helium along with his daily dose of uppers. Obsequious and puppyish in approaching authority figures, and winningly sweet even when quoting from his character’s autobiography, Mein Scuffle, the actor allows Chipsdale to graduate to snappy suits, ornate epaulets, and brutishness without sacrificing so much as an ounce of naivete. And the comic hay he can make with a pelvis-thrusting, knees-and-elbows-akimbo “bubble dance” is remarkable.
Also appealingly flamboyant is Brook Butterworth as his dance partner, Fedora, vamping in high style even when her lines fail her. It must have been a trick just avoiding being upstaged by the color-coordinated phonograph records costumer Edu. Bernardino put in her hair, but Butterworth makes the character more than the sum of her flashy accouterments. Richard Mancini, decked out in some of the more aggressive plaids I’ve ever seen on stage (Bernardino’s costumes are among the evening’s most reliable pleasures), also holds his own as Federgolia’s medal-obsessed Grand Pertussis, while Ian LeValley makes what he can of an Everyprole part that’s too freighted with authorial goodness to be much fun.
Other characters have less to work with, though director Brian Hemmingsen has been resourceful in finding physical business for them. Hope Lambert rides a Baba Wawa speech impediment for all it’s worth while coping with an increasingly enormous bundle of joy in utero. Tom Quinn blusters paternally as both a mysterious labor-camp chef and a doomed pre-Chipsian “Voice of Truth.” But despite much running around on various levels, and some musical jokes in Jim Stone’s sound design (a couple of which Hemmingsen turns physical by having actors incorporate their rhythms into stage business), the other performers mostly flail to lesser effect.
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Which is not to suggest that any of them could really salvage such faux-smutty declarations as “the doctor wants to woozy again,” or the author’s would-be ironic chatter about how a “race of artists and aesthetes will rule the world.” Edwardswhose previous playwriting includes the astute comic thriller, National Defense, which deftly mixed terrorism, deaf-nun jokes, and social commentaryisn’t nearly as focused in Chips as he was in that comparatively character-oriented and down-to-earth work. He’s jokey and cartoonish this time out, with far too many of the jests relying on gag names and repetition. And he’s so in need of editing that the evening could lose at least one of its three acts without sacrificing much in the way of content.
Nor is this script as politically savvy as its Washington Shakespeare Company interpreters (perhaps somewhat blinded by loyalty to Edwards, who was a founding member) seem to think it is. Chips first saw the light of day at Source Theatre’s 1988 summer festival at a time when the Soviet Union was splintering, but it’s hard to imagine that the author’s broad satirical jabs wouldn’t have felt labored decades before that. Today, with factionalism consuming Eastern Europe and populations in many former communist republics suffering from the absence of effective government, the play’s anti-collectivist message sounds decidedly simplistic.
What can be done to dress it up for the stage, however, Hemmingsen and company have certainly done. Michael Murray’s brooding, two-story setting and Lynn Joslin’s shadowy lighting give the evening the dark, cluttered, retro-tech look favored by Terry Gilliam in such films as Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The performances are sharp, the technical credits professional, and the physical production every bit as extravagant-on-a-shoestring as WSC’s outings with Shepard, Stoppard, and the Bard.
Something similar could be said of Signature Theatre’s approach to No Way to Treat a Lady, a frothily murderous musical by Douglas J. Cohen that is being accorded one of the company’s trademark environmental treatments. Designer Lou Stancari has erected an entire city out of what appear to be pieces of kindling, Daniel MacLean Wagner has dappled this city with flickering greenish light that makes it appear to be smoldering with rot and decay, and director Scott Schwartz has sent out four reasonably incendiary performers to burn up the stage with paroxysms of musical-comedy angst.
Alas, the damn thing never catches fire.
The story of an actor named Kit who’d kill to get his name in the New York Times and a detective named Mo who’s hot on his trail (but perhaps not hot enough), the show is based on a novel by William Goldman that was turned into an amusingly scary 1968 thriller starring Rod Steiger and George Segal.
At Signature, Larry Redmond has inherited the homicidal Steiger part, which calls for disguises and lots of flamboyance, and he showboats about as campily as anyone might wish while knocking off the various women who remind the character of his mom. Whether nervously fingering his clerical collar, stomping around with shirt open to the waist as a tango instructor, or smoothing his skirt while batting heavily mascara’d eyes at a potential victim, he’s amusingly single-minded and full-voiced.
Buzz Lauro has less flashy things to do as Mo, the detective with mother problems of his own, but plays the part in a similarly obsessive way, except when he’s romancing Peggy Yates’ sweet ingenue, with whom he understandably goes all googly-eyed. She’s a charmer, classy and smartass in the way leading ladies were back when Michelle Lee and Anita Gillette played them on Broadway. Also sharp is Donna Migliaccio, who plays all the mothers and mother surrogateseasily the evening’s best assignmentas if she were auditioning for the lead in The Dorothy Loudon Story.
But they’re all stymied by material that’s serviceable and sturdy rather than surprising, a characteristic that would be infinitely preferable considering the repetitive nature of the plot. Basically Kit kills, Mo fumbles, and the Times ignores them, so Kit kills again. And so on. When it’s time to bring down the curtain, there’s finally some variation, but otherwise the show can only vamp with a formulaic romance between Mo and his girlfriend.
Cohen’s melodies are pretty enough but not terribly memorable, as was the case with many mid-’80s musicals (the show premiered in New York a decade ago), while his lyrics always seem to rhyme on precisely the word that seems most logical, rather than offering patrons the sort of odd little surprises that might make their ears perk up. This is even true on the standout patter number in which Mo’s girlfriend meets his mom and convinces her that, contrary to all appearances, they’ve got a lot in common.
Scott Schwartz, who just finished directing an off-Broadway version of the same show for the York Theater Company, apparently darkened his approach for Signature’s staging. It’s hard to imagine the show being much chirpier. But if this is as deep as it gets, I suppose deeper is better.CP