French proverb that says to the effect that "In love, there is always one who kisses and another who offers the cheek."
That's the issue with the two dysfunctional couples lying at the heart of Lanford Wilson's 1970 (revised 1976) play
Serenading Louie now being presented at The American Century Theater (to 8/21).
the one hand, there's Carl (Hans Dettmar) a successful developer who pours everything into his relationship with wife
Mary (Vanessa Bradchulis); on the other, there's Gabby (Robin Covington) who sucks everything out of hers with attorney
husband Alex (Theodore M. Snead).
Serenading Louie - the title taken from
the Yale Whiffenpoff Song - hearkens back to the sunny rites of college and the optimism of youth, a time to which everyone
in the play's world would like to return.
Director Stephen Scott Mazzola has mounted a
somewhat understated, uneven, and at times expressionistic production in an effort to capture Mr. Wilson's introspective,
character-driven play. The staging with expository asides delivered to the audience and overlapping dialogue at the
conclusion - where separate members of each couple converse - reflect the shared consciousness of the characters and lend
an intimacy to the performance.
The scenic design of Deborah Wheatley, with brown-orange
color palette, has a faded and dingy look to it, which together with the monotonous lighting of Andrew Griffin and the popular
20s-40s sound of Matt Otto evoke an era of living, if not being frozen, in the past. Only the costumes of Frank Labovitz
bring some pizzazz to this picture.
Best buds Carl and
Alex seem like a pair of weary players running out the clock on their respective marriages in the opening scenes. Only
when they meet together over snacks and some brews, along with a sporting ritual, a rerun of the Super Bowl (it was new then!),
do the male confidences fly. Both are unhappy with their lives, either with their careers, which they are pursuing full-tilt
with unsatisfying results, or their wives, manifested in their respective sex lives. Carl's is essentially shut
down while Alex is withstanding what he perceives to be a continuing blitz. There's a lot of talk of when, where,
and how much they like it, which even given the nature of those frank and venturesome times, does not ring all together true.
After much telling and not much showing, we find out (here and later) that infidelity is symptomatic of the malaise.
But the larger issue is the sense they make of the past. For Carl it is was a moment he wants to recapture (if not return
to) as it was then; for Alex, it offers the promise of the best to come. Each as it turns out is illusory.
Act II picks up the pace (in tempo with Mr. Otto's discordant strings) with some upbeat socializing
between both couples following a night on the town. This alcohol-laced segment jump starts the action like so many happy
hours with an open bar. The drink they are sharing here is not loneliness, but nostalgia. Mr. Snead infuses Alex with an energy
that plays well off the equally vibrant Ms. Bradchulis and the believably enabling Ms. Covington. Even Mr. Dettmar's
depression prone Carl rallies with a turn in mask.
At first glance it would appear that
the balance of power lies one way or the other depending on who possesses that discrete object of desire. It develops,
however, that that the arrangement between each of the couples is reciprocal and it's neither monetary nor sexual per
se. Men provide the stories and idealism which the women, living in the present with blinders - they can't stand very
much reality - use to sustain their illusions. In return, the men get some form of anchoring, and boy do they need it!
There's also discontent revealed here from Mary, who's been keeping her options open,
as we find out, from day one. The pervasive, non-stop attention of Carl has taken its toll, and she questions the "feeding
your life into someone else's veins - whoever can bear to accept it anyway?" Mary's toted up the marital
balance sheet and found it wanting. There will be a few more revelations and a startling ending to the night's festivities
which, if not always clear, due to the constraints of the set design, will be emphatic. There may be some unresolved
issues on your mind, but closure will not be one of them.
Mr. Wilson's script
saddles the male characters with a lot of exposition. Even with the best of casting, and TACT and the actors have done
a commendable job, it would be difficult to pull off completely. Carl in particular has half a dozen extended stories
which we and the characters have to wade through, while Alex's continuing saga of unfulfillment grows old early.
When the men are paired with their stage wives (or conversing across space-time with their opposites), the language and emotions
ring truer. The ladies fare better. Ms. Covington is riveting as Gabby, fleshing out a role which on paper seemed
nothing more than an emotionally needy spouse. And Ms. Bradchulis gives a clipped and sensitive portrayal of Mary whose
world is slowly being chipped away.
references abound and it should be noted that characters of the play fit right between The Greatest Generation and The Baby
Boomers, two cohorts with considerable clout. Mr. Wilson's play, a bit verbose by today's standards, nonetheless
still travels well. Though situated in the seventies in Chicago, it really could take place any time, any place.
If anything, these themes are even more relevant today in a violent 24/7 world, where those bygone days look as appealing
Sound check: Very good, with low to mid-sound levels muffled only by the limitations of the space.
Program notes: Excellent; along with the nominally priced Audience Guide (free to subscribers) and
the informative podcast on their website (www.americancentury.org), you will be fully prepared.
Applause meter: 3 hands for comparable Non-Equity productions.
Recommended for those theatergoers looking to see an American Classic on its feet, are unacquainted with the work of Lanford
Wilson, or seeking greater exposure to the craft of playwrighting. TACT continues to entertain and educate a discerning audience.
Runtime: About 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.
Photo credits: Dennis DeLoria
© John F. Glass July 30, 2010