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Theater Review:

"SUMMERTIME," Lookingglass Theatre Company at Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts

BY LUCIA MAURO

In the program notes for "Summertime," playwright Charles L. Mee is quoted from the "New York Times." He attributes the decline of theater in America to "the triumph of naturalism and the well-made play, which is boring people crazy out of their minds." He continues, "The great hope for the theater is that it returns to the immense energies that were in Greek theater and Shakespeare, theater that includes not just text and interpersonal relationships but also spectacles, music, dance, physical performance, color, noise, fabulous events happening."

Strange, but Mee’s ideology-spewing rant disguised as a play, "Summertime," includes every imaginable theatrical quirk and sensationalistic trick yet it is probably the most deadly boring, irksome and unsatisfying play I’ve ever experienced. Lookingglass Theatre Company’s laborious production, under Joy Gregory’s flat-as-a-board direction, at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts only serves to exaggerate Mee’s shallowness, self-conscious vulgarity and weighty unoriginality.

A central problem with the playwright’s fierce rejection of the well-made play idea is that he ultimately sacrifices plot, character development and purpose in favor of hip, non-linear artsiness. Simply because "Summertime" gathers together a large group of entwined lovers at a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard – yet another pretentious conceit – to debate the latest "Men Are from Mars/Women Are from Venus" gobbledygook, does not qualify it as a play. Besides, most of Mee’s so-called ponderings on love and sex in general could be gleaned from any grocery check-out magazine.

His equally faddish attempts at covering the spectrum of pairings (heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and those rooted in various fetishes) actually turn out to be offensive to all parties – particularly a later scene featuring two elderly lesbians exaggerated to clownish proportions.

Mee thrusts characters into scenes and gleefully throws context to the wind. The "play" begins with the arrival of an uptight man, James (Philip R. Smith), who asks the object of his attraction, Tessa (Anne Fogarty), to translate captions of nude photos from Italian to English. Tessa’s caricaturized French lover, Francois (Joe Dempsey), swings down from a rope out of nowhere and proceeds to seduce her with a slinky red slip and a clumsily steamy tango.

Soon the other eccentrics for eccentrics’ sake appear. They are Mimi (De Anna N.J. Brooks), a bisexual artist peeved at Francois for abandoning her yet rejecting the lovesick pleas of her former lover, the nymphomanic Natalie (Sandra Delgado); Tessa’s voluptuous mother Maria (Laura T. Fisher), who also pines for Francois; and father, the brow-beaten Frank (Andrew White); Frank’s on-and-off gay lover, Edmund (Thomas J. Cox); a male-hating housekeeper Barbara (DuShon Monique Brown); a serial-killer pizza delivery guy Bob (David Catlin); and kinky German next-door neighbor Gunter (David Kersnar).

They all proceed to serve as mouthpieces for different kinds of love: from love at first sight to love regained and lost again. But at no point do the characters really connect. "Summertime" is nothing more than a series of trendy recitations, which include excerpts from Valerie Solanis’ violently male-bashing "Scum Manifesto" and the confessions of John Wayne Gacy. Nevertheless, even the metaphors grow obvious, overdone and false. By the time we get to the final scene, it’s unclear and quite bizarre why the semi-closeted gay character, Frank, is left writhing alone in despair (despite the fact that he seems to have reconciled with both his wife and lover).

Lookingglass’ production gets giddily caught up in Mee’s gratuitous showiness (which includes Mimi making a real plaster cast out of Francois’ chest). The talented ensemble – which includes such standouts as Fisher, Dempsey, Cox and White – awkwardly plows through this meaningless work rife with Mee’s characteristic manic and self-flagellating physicality. Events also happen for no compelling dramatic end – like the wicker chairs the actors hoist up on ropes. Why? Or Francois’ goofy striptease?

Other annoyances include Mee’s cliched evocations of Italy – especially Maria’s yawn-inducing descriptions of Tuscany that sound like, as one viewer observed, an old, corny Ernest & Giulio Gallo wine commercial. Of course, Mee’s inclusion of these romantic cliches may serve as his own satiric statement about the falsely idyllic nature of romance. But the sarcasm never satisfactorily surfaces.

Gregory’s production, as a whole, conveys as phony a gloss as Mee’s (non) script. The only elements that held my attention were Brian Sidney Bembridge’s bright and airy scenic design and creamy New England-infused lighting; Mara Blumenfeld’s citrusy beachwear costumes (an ice-cream float palette of fuchsia, tangerine and lime green); and the sensuous original compositions by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman.
Overall, "Summertime" spends too much time jabbering about intangibles rather than providing audiences with a truly meaningful, provocative and exquisitely written piece of theater – like the well-made play Mee so feverishly lambastes.

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of "Summertime" runs through May 26 at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $28.50-$33.50. Call 312-337-0665 or log onto www.lookingglasstheatre.org.

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