Created by Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen
Written by Tim Sniffen
Directed by Stuart Carden and Michael Halberstam
Produced by Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Huge Laughs at Old Tragedies
After opening their new building with a production of Tom Stoppard’s incredibly dense Arcadia, the staff at Writers Theatre thought audiences might be in the mood for something funnier. Do they ever deliver. In a collaboration with Second City, Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody is now the inaugural production of the Gillian, the smaller of the playing spaces in the complex. Riffing on four of the mid-twentieth century dramas which dominate the American stage (the fourth, not included in the title, being Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen’s script is a rapid-fire homage and parody which imagines a clash of icons in sultry New Orleans. Like Stoppard, the authors presume that the audience is made up of educated, knowledgeable people, and play on their level. Of course, ridiculous fanfiction can get tiresome without a strong production, but directors Stuart Carden and Michael Halberstam have assembled a brilliant six-member ensemble of veteran actors who know these plays well enough to clearly delight in a chance to have fun with them.
The story isn’t of much importance here, but the premise is that Blanche DuBois (Jennifer Engstrom) has broken out of her mental institution, and gone to visit her sister and brother-in-law while continuing to await the arrival of her totally-real fiancé. Stella has gone missing, and no way is Stanley (Michael Perez) putting up with Blanche on his own, but he’s recently opened the house he got from Big Daddy to boarders. (Beautiful set by Linda Buchanan.) His first customers are a salesman from Brooklyn and a history professor and his wife from New Haven. This is explained to us by the Stage Manager (Sean Fortunato), who describes himself as a useful tool for playwrights to deliver exposition through without having to develop characters or show any action. So take that, Thornton.
Once they’re together, the characters quickly cast judgement on each other, and subconsciously split into teams in a twisted game of dominance. Willy Loman (Marc Grapey), described by the Stage Manager as the most depressing person in history, in case you didn’t know that, is desperate to make a sale, having missed the seminar he arrived for. George (John Hoogenakker through July 17, then Greg Matthew Anderson) and Martha (Karen Janes Wositsch) are in town to meet their totally-real son, and recognize that their craziness has met its match in Blanche, but make a go of it, anyway. Stanley’s sweat is much sexier than Willy’s, and his knowledge of the history of philosophy outshines George’s, but his violent demeanor is almost enough to make the other characters resistant to his animal magnetism. Almost. Meanwhile, the pizza from Godot’s restaurant is taking forever, an old rifle is hanging conspicuously on the back wall, and the Stage Manager soon has reason to start seating people on his special chairs stage-left.
Intermingled in the main story are short scenes referencing other reasonably well-known plays of the same era, and flashbacks which provide more opportunities for comedy at the expense of the characters and their original writers. A big part of the enjoyment here is that the actors could all plausibly play the same roles in serious productions. Willy’s nebbishness, the Stage Manager’s wryness, George’s self-loathing, Martha’s disappointment, Blanche’s fancifulness, and Stanley’s testiness are present in spades, and all involved clearly love these plays enough to do such an in-depth parody. People who have had long careers in theatre have likely been exposed to these works many, many times, and there must be a bit of relief in not having to treat them with reverence. After all, the Stage Manager is annoying, and Blanche DuBois really does come across as the mother of all drag queens. But while there’s a lot of mockery here, there’s no anger, and it is interesting to see what would happen if Stanley met someone who didn’t enrage him in quite the same way, or Willy was confronted with people who have made their home a worse hell than his. Almost every line elicited a huge laugh, and the sum is even greater than its parts.
Reviewed May 4, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the Gillian at Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, Illinois. Tickets are $35-80; to order, call 847-252-6000 or visit writerstheatre.org. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm (with 3:00 performances on select Wednesdays), Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm through July 31. Running time is seventy minutes. Intended for mature audiences.