Exuberance can be an attractive quality in a playwright. But it's not enough in itself to insure a lively evening of theater. Steve Tesich's "Division Street," which tumbled into the Ambassador last night, is a messy, featherbrained farce with a few good slapstick touches, most of them timeworn, and for a finish a patriotic display as sincere as a politician's pre-election promises.
Exhibiting an unrestrained good will toward polyglot Americans that is remindful of, though less convincing than, early Saroyan, along with a similarly crude grasp of stagecraft, Tesich has taken a sentimental look at political activists of the 60s now mellowed or simply tuckered out with the passage of years and old causes.
His conclusion, accompanied by the mass singing of "America, the Beautiful" as the cast, lined up along the stage apron, is backed by a huge American flag, is that we must all go forward together, pursuing our dream regardless of political pressures. "Look, look, look to the rainbow," as Yip Harburg's "Finian's Rainbow" lyric goes.
His protagonist is Chris, played by John Lithgow in the actor's by-now patented loose-jointed show of amiability. Chris lives in a fleabag of a N. Division St. Chicago apartment, a design that might have served equally well for the recently-departed "Passione." A youthful rebel leader of the 60s, a peer of Abbie and Jerry and the rest, he now, at 37, longs for job security. As he explains in his most entertaining outburst, delivered to his estranged wife Dianah whose thoughts are expressed largely in the lyrics to standard popular songs, he has not the slightest interest in nuclear waste, the ozone, solar energy, baby seals and sundry other burning issues.
Those aside from Dianah who race in and out of Chris' flat, are his rotund black landlady Mrs. Bruchinski, who happens to be Polish by adoption; a Serbian hashhouse proprietor named Yovan who is bent on shooting Chris for throwing up in front of his eatery, and who keeps getting knocked flat by hastily opened doors; a transsexual cop named Betty; a spectacularly unimpressive lawyer named Sal; a young prostitute named Nadja who stoutly declares herself to be a "slut" rather than a "whore" and, most amusing of the bunch, a former devoted sidekick of Chris, a worn-out radical named Roger who masquerades as an old man to disguise his strange, powerful and enervating appeal for members of the opposite sex. Joe Regalbuto's performance as Roger provides the giddy, messy play with its funniest moments.
Add enough mistaken identities and hidden relationships to satisfy the most ardent admirer of 19th Century literature, and you might well suppose that Tesich has furnished all the necessary trappings for a richly humorous evening. And you'd probably be right. But a complete lack of discipline and a smothering tendency to repeat gags over and over result in a ramshackle structure more tiresome than diverting. The thrice-uttered "I don't believe a word of this" by different characters fails to disarm us. On the other hand, it is probably only an intense dislike for the song that found me grinding my teeth every time "Those Were the Days" was sung by one or more members of the cast.
Going about their broad business with gusto under Tom Moore's knockabout staging are Keene Curtis as the violent Serbian restaurateur, Theresa Merritt as the Polish landlady with the odd polish, Anthony Holland as the lawyer dementedly trying to attract attention; Murphy Cross as the softhearted hooker, and Justin Lord as the newly-feminized cop. Christine Lahti, a striking actress who has been seen to advantage in other plays, is wasted as that walking song sheet Dianah.
Tesich, all of whose previous plays here were done by the American Place Theater, and only one of which ("Baba Goya") possessed any merit, still has a great deal to learn about playwriting. Movies (his "Breaking Away" script won this year's Academy Award), with their greater freedom of movement and ability to substitute quick cuts for rounded-out scenes, may be more congenial to this writer's talents.
Imagine a radical flower-child of the '60s, full of dope and politics, trying to enter the Me-generation of the late '70s and to make it more or less intact into the '80s. Doesn't it sound farcical to you? It certainly sounded farcical to Steve Tesich, who has celebrated this all too likely proposition in his new play, Division Street, which opened last night at the Ambassador Theater.
It is unlike anything Tesich has written before. It is also quite outrageously funny. Tesich is giving us a updated, satirical Feydeau farce, with all-American politics substituted for all-French sex. It is a fine comfort.
Tesich has always been one of our brighter playwrights. His plays have usually been rather complex, symbolic essays in what it means to be alive, American, and now. Then last year - or was it the year before? - Tesich found himself writing a Hollywood script called Breaking Away. Come, no one finds himself doing anything. There is always a certain premeditation about the process of survival. However, writing a hot Hollywood script - Tesich won a very well deserved Oscar for his screenplay - has clearly shattered his view of the theater and establish his need to attract larger audiences that his often exquisitely posied symbolic dramas could not possibly reach.
Now he has returned to the theater without abandoning movies and clearly he has found a middle ground between the naturalism of his movies and the symbolism of his plays. What could be more appropriate than farce?
John Lithgow plays a radical of the '60s - slogans spouting out of his nostrils like flames from Puff the Magic Dragon - who has left his wife and now, in Chicago, of all possible places, is trying to achieve the profitable anonymity of straightness. But he has difficulties.
He wakes up in the morning to have a newspaper tossed at him though it were a lethal weapon. People send him milk - people even send him whores - simply because his predecessor in the apartment believed in subscription payment.
And he has a black landlady with a Polish accent and a taste of adventure, called Mrs. Bruchinski. Things happen quite appallingly. His wife emerges, his best friend emerges, a Serbian restaurant owner also emerges. Everyone emerges.
Tesich works like a computer. As with so many English-speaking writers who do not have English as their native tongue, he has a totally ridiculous regard for bad puns, and sometimes this is just the kind of writing that could give sophomoric a bad name. But his manic comic vision - sometimes in the fashion of his contemporary playwright Christopher Durang - is irresistable, and his central comic position of one world trying, hilariously to slam doors on another remains impeccable and ruefully amusing.
Tom Moore has directed with almost unerring and certainly relentless panache, but it works splendidly and the cast has responded most handsomely.
Lithgow as the befuddled hero trying to reject his radical past is a model of horrified bewilderment - the unsuspecting eye of the farcical hurricane - but the rest of the cast is perfectly matched to Tesich's comic shenanigans.
Keene Curtis is the restaurateur and Anthony Holland is a lawyer who gets so little respect that even when he flashes no one notices, are exceptionally good. Then so is Joe Regaobuto as a ragged radical trying to keep the faith, Theresa Merritt as the black Polish joke, Christine Lahti as the hero's former wife who talks in hardly anything but pop-quotations, Justin Lord as a black transsexual who is escaping from his oblique horror radical past and Murphy Cross as a magical young lady who turns tricks.
Incidentally, they are all inter-related and there is the resolution of this extremely clever and beguiling farce. No play that ends on the particular note offered by Division Street can be all bad. And this one is good enough not to be missed.
In "Division Street," Steve Tesich has not only found a great subject, but he has also found the courage to tackle it in a daring, mischievous way. Mr. Tesich's new play, which opened last night, is about what happened to radicals of the 60's after the movement died. Why does Jerry Rubin now work on Wall Street? Where are the Mark Rudds of yesteryear? These are the kinds of questions that Mr. Tesich implicitly wants to raise. And he doesn't care to provide the hand-wringing, introspective answers you might expect. It's this writer's ingenious notion that the political and psychological hangovers of the 60's - from revisionism to selling out - can be the stuff of broad, slambang farce. A crazy idea, perhaps, but potentially a splendid one.
The trouble with "Division Street" is that Mr. Tesich only intermittently delivers the goods. To be sure, he has devised several riotous gags and has filled the stage with a goodly assortment of idiosyncratic characters, all of whom dash madly about Ralph Funicello's wild, Rube Goldbergesque contraption of a set. But if the promise of fun and trenchant satire is everywhere at the Ambassador, "Division Street" ultimately proves more frantic than funny, more well meaning than well crafted. By the end, we're still waiting for Mr. Tesich's farce to boil over into hilarity and for his characters to come to honest terms with their teargas-scented past.
At the outset, the playwright leads us to anticipate a lot more. His hero, Chris (John Lithgow), is a perfect lightning rod for comedy: a burnt-out radical who has settled in Chicago to seek obscurity as an insurance underwriter. All Chris wants to do is forget about his antiwar years - "Even Pete Seeger is winding down," he explains - but Mr. Tesich refuses to allow him any peace.
Through cockamamie plot circumstances, Chris is soon besieged by addled old cronies and unwanted new acquaintances - a former black militant who has been surgically reborn as a female cop (Justin Lord), a former wife who still speaks through a bullhorn (Christine Lahti) and a Serbian restaurateur (Keene Curtis) who dresses like Nathan Detroit and is willing to throw bombs to snare his piece of the American dream.
As these oddballs arrive at Chris's apartment, Mr. Tesich adds others and provides a number of vivid set-pieces. The hero's one-time political comrade "Roger the Rotten" (Joe Regalbuto) turns up to confess such recidivist transgressions as despising the women's movement, owning a Buick and writing letters to TV Guide in praise of his favorite television show. Chris's landlady (Theresa Merritt) - a randy middle-aged black woman who also happens to be Polish - marches about singing "We Shall Overcome." A young prostitute (Murphy Cross) drops by to plead the moral virtues of promiscuity.
In the evening's most biting speech, Chris tries to shut up all his visitors by boasting of his contempt for such post-60's causes as solar power, boat people, sugarless children's cereal and macramé. "I don't know who's running Cambodia," he shouts, "and I don't care!" He forces us to laugh until it hurts.
But Chris never does silence the others, and, the more speeches we hear, the clearer it becomes that Mr. Tesich is dawdling and repeating his jokes. While it's funny at first to discover that Chris's former wife speaks in vintage song lyrics, it's not amusing for two whole acts, or when other characters join in. The Serb's ethnic malapropisms ("That takes the cupcake" and so on) also wear thin, as do Roger the Rotten's paranoid tirades about female orgasms, the landlady's references to sexual "hanky panky" and the Rodney Dangerfield-inspired routines recited by the former wife's nebbishy divorce lawyer (Anthony Holland). Without new twists to keep them aloft, running gags can quickly run into the ground.
Once they do, the carpentry of the plot collapses with them. Though Mr. Tesich has outdone Plautus in setting up mistaken identities, his comic booby traps never explode in a clever farcical climax. Instead, there's an arbitrary, talky denouement in which all the characters effortlessly solve the earlier confusions. Worse still, the playwright fudges the resolution of his hero's crisis. When Chris finally abandons me-decade narcissism to revert to his old activism, there is no motivation for his conversion. Like magic, he suddenly embraces a new, nonideological "movement" that is just as mysteriously taken up by his friends. Mr. Tesich's final hat trick - an extravagant comic salute to the radicals' reminted version of flag-waving patriotism - is no doubt sincere, but it also seems an attempt to camouflage the play's otherwise inept conclusion.
It's possible, too, that Tom Moore's frenetic direction has helped raise the evening's ante of false expectations. From the very opening moment, in which Chris wrestles exaggeratedly with his bedclothes, "Division Street" has been staged as a nonstop romp. Mr. Moore is a master of the genre, but he may be guilty of overselling his material here. When doors and windows slam throughout Act I, we expect such jokes to be compounded exponentially rather than embellished modestly in Act II. When actors deliver every line at a hysterical pitch, the audience is rightfully disappointed when each line doesn't pay off with a laugh. At times, this production's relentless busyness becomes the theatrical equivalent of canned laughter.
Perhaps Mr. Moore had no real alternative but to keep things flying, and yet it's worth noting that the most winning performances are those that maintain a passing relationship with reality. Mr. Lithgow and Miss Merritt are both absurd and credible; as they balance their battier excesses with their earnest longings for vanished ideals, they alone recall the touching eccentrics of such superior Tesich efforts as "Breaking Away" and "Nourish the Beast."
The others in the cast - notably Messrs. Curtis, Regalbuto and Holland - are all highly accomplished farceurs. If they finally exhaust both themselves and the audience, that's what happens when a playwright unleashes fast and funny characters and then wastefully keeps them running in place.