Hard times and rumors of a pleasurable buzz

A trio of shows moves from farce to Depression fervor to the medical wonders of the vibrator

Alex Fox and Andrea White, in the next room. Photo: Triangle Productions

Alex Fox and Andrea White, in the next room. Photo: Triangle Productions

A vibrator, a union organizer, and Neil Simon walked into a bar.

OK, maybe not. But last weekend I walked into three theaters presenting plays about (in order) Victorian genital stimulation, a Depression era strike, and a houseful of cocktail comedians. And if I can’t come up with a single punch line to pull the three together, well, maybe that’s because the world of theater covers a lot of human territory. Before this weekend’s openings hit the boards (Brendan Behan’s “Moving Out” and “A Garden Party” at Readers Theatre Rep, “Mother Teresa Is Dead” at Portland Playhouse) let’s speculate a bit about last weekend’s mixed drinks, all of which are still happy to run up your theatrical bar tab.

These three – Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play” at Triangle Productions, Martha Boesing’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” at Sowelu, Simon’s “Rumors” at Lakewood Theatre – might never set foot in the same saloon, let alone order the same drink. Still, as the good doctor in Ruhl’s yearning comedy probably wouldn’t say, bottoms up: there’s a little bit of kick in all three.

 

“RUMORS”

Simon’s comedy, in a taut and lively production at Lakewood Theatre in Lake Oswego, is the most purely entertaining of this trio of shows. “Rumors” is more classically farcical in structure than most of Simon’s plays, harking back to the likes of Feydeau and Moliere, and it retains Simon’s Broadway-gold ability to graft vivid personalities onto stock characters. Sure, the plot stretches credibility more than once (this bothered my good friend Marty Hughley in his review for The Oregonian), but that’s the nature of farce: you take a personality or situational foible and see how far you can stretch it before it snaps. Television situation comedy is a child of farce, and the best ones, such as “I Love Lucy” and “Frasier,” can be painful to watch when their protagonists stumble even farther than usual beyond the norm. For most of us, it’s a wince of recognition: they remind us of our own misadventures in stubborn stupidity. The beauty of a good farce is that it’s at once an exploration of human weakness (often of the self-deceiving variety) and an exercise in sheer escapist entertainment.

Farce descending a staircase: from top, Pierce, Calcagno, Gorham, Mahon. Photo: Lakewood Theatre.

Farce descending a staircase: from top, Pierce, Calcagno, Gorham, Mahon. Photo: Lakewood Theatre.

The flea in this particular comedy’s ear is that the deputy mayor of New York City has shot himself through the earlobe just as the guests to his 10th wedding-anniversary party are to arrive, and his wife is nowhere to be found. For reasons that made as much or little sense in 1988, when the play was new, as they do now, several successions of guests either attempt to hide the tawdry truth from the next guests or pull them in on a conspiracy of silence, until the end, when it’s everyone against the two investigating cops. As far as plot goes, that’s all you really need to know. The rest is style, percolated by Simon’s gift of gag.

Yes, this is a period piece. But like so many good period pieces, it has its cake and eats it, too, transporting its audience to a place of familiar and nostalgic pleasure, with a little sly exposure of human nature thrown in as a bonus. Director Joe Thiessen might push the panic button a little too fiercely here and there, but in the main the action proceeds tick-tock terrifically, with crack timing and brittle but piercing revelations of human folly. Farce is for people who appreciate the complex workings of an intricately assembled clock, and Thiessen’s an excellent craftsman. The cool, uncalm and carefully uncollected cast, all of them adept at giving a nod to the days when Barrymores roamed the earth, include (I name them as couples, because that’s how they arrive) Darius Pierce and Brooke Lynn Calcagno, Jeff Gorham and Pam Mahon, Garland Lyons and Rani Lightle (he shrinks heads, she’s a celebrity chef) and Brian Williams and Kelly Godell. Bud Reece and Ollie Bergh crash the party as a couple of cops.

A good farce also looks good, and Lakewood’s “Rumors” is as smooth as the Scotch that freely flows: deco-hinting two-level set by the reliably talented Jeff seats, cocktail-party costumes by Allison Dawe, props plenty by Felix Kelsey, lights by Kurt Herman. And, yes: doors do slam. “Rumors” won’t change your life or challenge your assumptions. But it’s got the “play” part of the theatrical equation down pat.

 

“HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE”

Performance Works NW, where Sowelu Theater’s production of Boesing’s social drama is taking place, is little more than an oversized garage off of Foster Road in Southeast Portland, and its makeshift starkness seems just right for the play. You can squeeze maybe 45 audience members into the place, and the crowd’s almost sitting in the faded upholstery of the Minneapolis boarding house where most of the action occurs. We’re invited to eavesdrop, be outraged, and deeply sympathize during the harsh labor strike that has ground the city to a halt in July of 1934 and pitted desperate workers against the fat cats, pols and cops who threaten to shove them even farther into the Depression dust.

Down but not quite out: the cast of "Hard Times." Photo: Sowelu Theater.

Down but not quite out: the cast of “Hard Times.” Photo: Sowelu Theater.

We’re in political-action drama land here, and subtlety is very far from the point. The residents of Mrs. Mason’s boarding house are salt-of-the-earth types forced by circumstance into alternately brave and humiliating acts – yes, one sweet girl takes to the streets to sell the only thing she has remaining with any monetary worth – and, yes, they discover that in unity lies strength.

In many ways “Hard Times,” based on stories and essays from the 1930s by the leftist writer Meridel LeSueur, feels more dated than either “Rumors,” from the go-go 1980s, or “In the Next Room,” which takes place in the late 19th century. But in other ways it’s timely. The parallels between the Great Depression and today’s Great Recession are far from neat and simple – the Depression occurred when there was virtually no social safety net; now there is one, though it’s incomplete and under constant attack – but the altered American working class of today is still getting battered, and forces are still conspiring to reward the wealthy at its expense. The distant mirror may be partly cracked, but it still reflects a rough resemblance.

This is an earnest show, with its sympathies tattooed large upon its chest, and it seems pitched mostly at true believers. But if it’s something of a historical curiosity, I’m glad it’s here and still willing to shake a few complacent shirts at the collar: yes, there are things the plugged-in 2010s can learn from the rock-hard 1930s. Directors Lorraine Bahr and Jim Davis have shaped the show surely and with telling compassion, and the eight cast members invest it with conviction. The play is peppered with songs from the era (like the underappreciated Steve Martin Depression-days 1981 movie musical “Pennies from Heaven,” also set in 1934), and the music rises simply and naturally from the action, always appropriate and never calling undue attention to itself. Among the cast, I’m particularly taken with the performances of Stephanie Woods as a young pregnant wife and Del Lewis as an old Russian-émigré factory worker for getting beneath the sloganeering to the human heart of the thing. Hard times always come again. Seems high time to say “no more.”

 

“IN THE NEXT ROOM”

Any play about the apparently rampant use by 19th century physicians of electric vibrators to induce “hysterical paroxysm” in their female patients is in peril of becoming little more than a burlesque. But Ruhl (“The Clean House,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Passion Play”) is a much better writer than that, and “In the Next Room” turns out to be quite funny but also sweet and perceptive and even moving. One company member compared it to Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” and it has at least surface similarities: a traditional doctor’s wife feeling caged in and daring to defy propriety in search of something more.

Any fan of Meg Ryan’s fake-orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” (and who isn’t?) will find comic gold in “In the Next Room,” which advances the joke because the women apparently don’t know exactly what’s happening to them and the doctors who apply this radical therapy don’t seem to understand that it has anything to do with sex. I can’t speak to the veracity of this chasm of comprehension, and yet it seems to be not just Ruhl’s invention that in the 1880s, when her play takes place, doctors saw no link between their therapy and the idea of pleasuring their patients: doctors were enthusiastic about the invention of the electric vibrator because it freed them from the drudgery of digital manipulation. The dam was about to burst: Freud was just around the corner, waiting to connect any and everything with sexual urges, and a certain kind of innocence would be lost forever.

So, yes. “In the Next Room” is partly about the comical implications of what’s happening behind that closed door to the doctor’s examination room (and the patients’ eagerness for daily sessions). But on a deeper and more moving level it’s about the breakdown of Victorian conventions and the gradual emotional liberation of women (these are mostly upper-middle-class characters) trapped in restrictive roles. And no one unleashes the shackles more fully than Mrs. Catherine Givings  (Jami Chatalas-Blanchard) the young wife of Dr. Givings (Peter Schuyler) and a comfortable but troubled woman: she’s a new mother but her milk won’t come in, and she has to resort to hiring a wet nurse.

There’s more to this play than Triangle’s production unfolds. I wish director Don Horn had pushed a little harder and shaped it a little more: a crisper, tighter show would be quicker, smoother, and richer in implication. It’d be great to see it with the sort of sharp execution that Simon’s “Rumors” receives at Lakewood. But the emotional and comic balance is good, the actors are appealing, and Horn and his actors understand the deeper emotional and social journey that Ruhl’s characters take.

Chatalas-Blanchard brings a sweetly yearning bravado to the action, and Schuyler’s carefully understated doctor is astonishingly self-satisfied and dense: he’s a man of science with hardly any understanding of the life swirling around him. Joe Healy and especially Louise Stinson are comically deft as the Daltrys, a couple with their own conflicting reasons for seeking the doctor’s ministrations; Michelle Maida is a rock of good sense as the doctor’s nurse and assistant; Alex Fox gives a slyly funny performance as one of the doctor’s few male patients; and Andrea White is quite touching as Elizabeth, the wet nurse, who’s lost her own baby and doesn’t really want to suckle someone else’s but has compelling economic reasons to do so.

I wonder about the only black person in the play also being the only one who gets the sexual implications of the pelvic massage: that skirts pretty close to racial or cultural stereotyping. But White gives Elizabeth both complexity and dignity. And ultimately, “In the Next Room” is much more about emerging compassion and dignity than sex jokes. Even if the sex jokes are pretty funny.

NOTES:

  • “Rumors” contnues at Lakewood Theatre through April 14. Ticket and schedule information is here.
  • “Hard Times Come Again No More” continues through March 23 at Sowelu. Tickey and schedule information is here.
  • “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” continues through March 31 at Triangle Productions. Ticket and schedule information is here.

 

 

Comments are closed.