Winter of Our Discontent

This holiday season Dennis discovers that one head-scratcher leads to another.

Dec 12, 2007 at 4:00 am
You say it's only mid-December and already you're sugarplum fairied out? You've taken to stealing bells from Salvation Army volunteers just to prevent any more angels from getting their wings? Eggnog nauseates you? And so far as you're concerned, Ebenezer Scrooge can rot in Hell? Is that what's bothering you, Bunky? Then you should know about two plays that owe precious little to either Charles Dickens or Frank Capra. Not that there aren't angels and miracles aplenty, but I won't mention them here: They're surprises best discovered by the viewer.

Greetings!, a comedy by Tom Dudzick that has been finding under-the-radar productions for the past sixteen years and is currently on view at the St. Louis Actors' Studio in a production directed by Milt Zoth, concerns a dutiful Catholic son (Tyler Vickers) living in New York who takes his Jewish atheist fiancée (Sara Renschen) home to Pittsburgh to meet his boorish father (John Contini) and terminally optimistic mother (Ruth E. Heyman). The dysfunctional family also includes a retarded brother (Christopher Hickey) who mainly exclaims "Wow!" and smiles a lot.

The reunion begins with the expected fireworks. Apparently some Catholics don't like atheists, though it's hard to imagine any heathen being more rational, sensitive and all-round appealing than Renschen. Once that initial confrontation has passed, the story takes a sharp U-turn. Without spoiling the twist, it's safe to assume that by evening's end everyone will be feeling a lot better about everyone else. But on your way out of the theater, you might find yourself humming — no, not "Good King Wenceslas" — the Peggy Lee standard, "Is That All There Is?"

The answer, alas, is yes. For all its presumed theatrics and magic, Greetings! is in fact a two-hour stage version of one hour of television. It's two sitcoms crammed into one plot. It nostalgically harkens back to 1972, an era when CBS ruled Saturday nights, beginning with All in the Family, which was followed by Bridget Loves Bernie (which was followed by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show — though Mary and Bob do not factor into this scenario).

Bridget Loves Bernie was an ethnic comedy (enjoyed by viewers, disdained by critics) about an appealing young Jewish writer (David Birney) married to an even more attractive blond schoolteacher (Meredith Baxter) who happened to be you-know-what. Dudzick simply reversed the roles: Now the girl is Jewish and the guy is Catholic. With only the skimpiest of dissembling, he added the curmudgeonly Archie Bunker and the long-suffering Edith as the boy's parents. Presto! The framework for a play.

Dudzick is trying to position himself as "the Catholic Neil Simon," a phrase he uses at the top of his official biography. He's not. Simon knows how to insert three huge laughs in the first two minutes. Dudzick provides three huge laughs in the entire two hours. At best, this is escapist dinner-theater fare without the meal. Perhaps the folks who run Actors' Studio should consider offering taco salad in the lobby — though, considering the configuration of the theater, sardines might be more in order.

It's easy to make light of Tom Dudzick, because he's just out to make a buck by accruing as many royalties as possible. There's nothing dishonorable about that; he too has kids to put through college and monthly house payments. But Neal Utterback, the author of the pretentiously titled second (all lowercase, please), currently being staged by The NonProphet Theater Company, is not so driven. At this point in his fledgling career, Utterback is too green to even know whether he can forge a career as a playwright.

Twenty years from now, he might be as highly regarded as Lanford Wilson, who emerged from the fervent off-off-Broadway scene of the 1960s. Like Wilson, Utterback is a Midwesterner (Indiana) who has made his way to New York and forged a place for himself in the new fringe theater. Only time will tell if he is to rise from that pool of novice writers or be cast aside. His developing talent is still a question mark. The only certainty we learn about Utterback from second is that he is well read. His play begins by being derivative of Harold Pinter's The Dumbwaiter and ends by borrowing from Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. At this early juncture, Utterback is more to be admired for his good taste than his originality.

Set on Christmas Eve during a massive New York City blizzard, the play is a triptych involving three couples. First we meet two petty criminals (Robert A. Mitchell, Adam Flores) who are waiting to learn how to dispose of a mysterious man (Tyson Blanquart) they have abducted. Next we witness the strained reunion between two professional women — one (Kirsten Wylder) a TV news reporter, the other (Kelley Ryan) a surgeon — whose personal relationship is approaching meltdown. Finally, we are voyeurs at a session between a hooker (Bess Moynihan) and her john (B. Weller). By the end of this 90-minute intermissionless drama, symmetry rears its head and the stories — would you expect less? — interweave.

Because Utterback is still learning his craft, he tends to play into the obvious with speeches like "I just want to talk" and "We have to deal with this." Then there are the truisms like "Sex is the perfect religion" and "Everyone in your life, you either want to fuck them or kill them." We're often told that "the world's falling apart." (Didn't we hear that same Cassandra-like warning last month in the 36-year-old And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little?) To let us know this story is au courant, we get the now-obligatory reference to 9/11: "Remember how helpful and kind everyone was to each other? Where did that go?" What these folks need is a good kick in the pants from Cher, who in Moonstruck shouts down all the naysayers with three simple words: "GET OVER IT!" But such advice would not suffice here, because these characters aren't real. They're bolts, screws and washers in a larger construction that, depending on your mood, is either the play's raison d'etre or its conceit.

The production, which was directed by Deanna Jent, moves at a brisk pace, especially considering how little occurs till the end. The performances strive for sincerity — which is the route to take, seeing as how the word "hope" is more liberally sprinkled through this dialogue than salt on an ice slick. Adam Flores does especially admirable work as the motor-mouth thug. But I never for one moment felt that any of these actors was aware (dialogue to the contrary) that a tumultuous blizzard was occurring. Nor did I hear that blizzard in the sound design or sense it in the lighting.

Perplexing things happen here. Why, after the first thug repeatedly insists that they must stay away from the window, does he then wander over to the window? Is that a story point or slack blocking? And why does the bound and gagged mysterious man remain onstage through all three stories? Is he there for a reason, or is it just too hard to get him offstage? Despite my confusions and reservations, it may well be that Utterback is a compass point to the future. I saw young viewers sitting on the edges of their seats just as they do at a Matrix film. This still-emerging writer may indeed know his audience — which is a much-needed audience if our moribund theater is to be reborn, which is really what second is all about.