By Douglas Post.
Directed by Scott Westerman.
Produced by City Lit Theatre, Chicago.
A Boring Trip on LSD.
There is a certain charm in seeing a play that takes place in Chicago; the charm is not unlike running into a friend from your hometown, seeing someone in an unfamiliar context, in a new light. I’m sorry to say that that charm quickly dissipates while seeing City Lit’s current production of Douglas Post’s Forty-Two Stories. Set in a high-rise condominium on Lake Shore Drive, Forty-Two Stories tells really but one story: that of a U. of Chicago philosophy student who works as a custodian at the aforementioned condominium. It’s not a very interesting story, and though perhaps the odd characters that make up the custodial and managerial staff—with their equally odd stories of the high-rise residents—might strike a resonant chord in those who reside in such buildings, the situation as a whole isn’t exactly compelling on the stage.
Ed (Robert Vignisson) is a perennial student who has been working on his PhD dissertation for the last 8 years: it’s a “system of thought” concerning the state of Man and Woman in contemporary society, he says. But what he really needs is a system of living, Frank (Edward Kuffert), the coffee-toting doorman, suggests. Ed gets a taste of life—or some kind of life—when he starts his “working-man’s” custodial job, where he meets the other custodians—men of varying degrees of work ethic and bitterness—the gun-wielding, high-strung manager Alice (Annie Hogan), and a girl he knew in high-school, Demetra (Tara Bouldrey).
While Alice compels the custodial staff to take polygraphs due to a rash of burglaries in the building—burglaries that have included the theft of women’s cherished undergarments—Ed gets smooth with Demetra, quickly falling in love with her (or his “idea of what she represents”?) and the project she is currently involved in in Southwest America, building an “arch-ecological” city that marries architecture with ecological. This idea—as well as Demetra’s lips—wet Ed’s whistle. That is, until Ed discovers the utopian city is only 1% built, whereupon he becomes reluctant to follow Demetra to said city, driving a wedge in their budding romance.
Fortunately for Ed, Frank, the frank realist, is on hand, even if he’s never to be found manning his post at the door like he’s supposed to. Frank encourages Ed to take a risk and live, and Ed, finding no philosophical quote to contradict the advice, embraces his wisdom. In the end, things end happily (except for the suicides who throw themselves from their condo balconies): the panty-burglar is discovered, Alice decompresses, and the custodial staff is returned to its disgruntled status quo.
Forty-Two Stories’ first two performances were as radio plays. Given how many meaningless, tangential stories are told by the characters—from how one woman is faking a leak in her apartment, to how this guy stabbed this woman and some other woman jumped off the roof because of it—I can imagine how listening to this while sitting in a car on LSD in the middle of rush-hour traffic might be entertaining. Unfortunately, it is not so while sitting in a theatre for two hours. In a theatre, it is boring—not unlike sitting in a car on LSD in the middle of rush-hour traffic with the radio turned off.
The production style of Cit Lit’s staging seems to suggest a kind of sit-com vibe: cool Jazz plays during the scene changes and the plot and subplots weave in and out in little episodes with more anecdotal and situational comedy than stage-drama and plot substance. This might have worked if I had cared for the characters. But I did not.
Except for Fred Wellisch’s Gunter, the custodial manager, who portrays an easy-going demeanor and a comically subtle unsophistication, and Scott Olson, who plays the president of the condo association and has a pleasant face I enjoy watching, the rest of the characters are irritating and one-dimensional: Robert Vignisson’s Ed, our protagonist, is bland milquetoast; Edward Kuffert’s Frank is obnoxiously insouciant; Annie Hogan’s Alice is a caricature of a nervous breakdown—and everyone else is unmemorable. With no one to root for, I was rooting for the anonymous anarchist who writes to Alice that he’s constructing a bomb to blow up the building. (Spoiler: it never happens.)
That being said, I think the audience for this play is older, lives in a condominium, and enjoys a quasi-satire disguised as a plodding bildungsroman with disgruntled “characters” who gossip about purportedly well-to-do manic-depressants. Aside from the titillating, pedestrian pleasure of hearing about (and seeing) people more screwed-up than oneself and the lukewarm feeling of seeing a young man with a part in his hair make a start at life, I can think of nothing else entertaining about this play.
Playing at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $12 – $32. For tickets and information, call 773-293-3682, or visit BrownPaperTickets.com. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through May 28th. Running time is 110 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.