Chicago's burgeoning stage: a profile

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The burgeoning nature of Chicago theater is evident during any month of choice. Take the current period. The Wisdom Bridge Theater, until recently a nonprofessional troupe, not only turned pro but then regaled its audiences with two related plays in repertory, Tom Stoppard's "Travesties" and Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." The Stoppard exerice is a travesty on "Earnest" as well as such historic figures as Joyce and Lenin.

But similarities end soon enough, to be replaced by totally different intentions. The Stoppard work is a game of intellect, a play on literary and social history peopled by practitioners of clever gamesmanship. Wilde's comedy amounts to delicious with and brittle pranks, a story of tea-circuit manner and ill manner. The thrill came from seeing a young company stylistically handle both plays in tandem and not lose the battle to a dramatic mind-set that often undermines the inexperienced.

Alan Gross's "Man in 605," a nifty opportunity for a flamboyant actor like Byrne Piven to chew scenery and lines as a besotted and yet at times still alert Dylan Thomas sort, has returned to be readied for an Off Broadway run.

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"Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" has surprised everyone, including its investors, who have begun to reap profits. A gamble of a little musical about Roman Catholic school education, it continues to run and run at the south suburban Forum theater.

Ralph Papehs "Say Goodnight, Gracie" received a beautiful production from the Travel Light Theater, so sensitive that anyone thinking about turning 30 and anyone who already has, even 20 years ago, can sense the hurt of lives changing and in danger of not going anywhere. The production has been so successful that a new theater had to be found to satisfy the audience flow. In similar fashion the St. Nicholas Theater's efforts with "The Primary English Class," Israel Horovitz's topsy-turvy, yet touching play about noncommunication, attracted patrons way beyond its scheduled period and had to be moved to another home.

And in two nights two theaters offered two world premieres. Goodman opened its stage to "Bal," by Obie winner Richard Nelson. The North Light Repertory offered "Who They Are and How It Is With Them," by its resident playwright, Grace McKeaney. It matters less that neither play really worked than that they were tried and that they joined a lengthening list of play debuts credited to Chicago theater.

"Bal" and "Who They Are" unfortunately exemplify the plight of too many playwrights today who have touches of an idea but then know not what to do with it. Consequently, these writers become unbearably talky and self-serving, less concerned with pleasing the audience than with getting things off their chests.

"Bal" takes its cue from Brecht's "Baal." Both are explorations of the self. Both focus on a man who destroys those he comes into contact with. Both Brecht, in his debt separation of audience and characters, manages to enhance symbolic scope. Nelson merely creates a barrier. His "Bal" becomes an unbelievable slob , and the victims turn nitwits. Across much of 2 1/2 hours one sits and wonders why. The pace is sluggish, the dialogue interminable. Director Greg Mosher courageously struggled to find a sense of mission for Jim Belushi as "Bal" and for the supporting players but everyone involved looks lost.

Miss McKeaney in her story of an odd couple on the prowl for their destiny, one a simpleton and the other a con man, mimics Ionesco, Pinter, Beckett, Sam Shepard, and the Keystone Kops, but mimicry becomes merely tedium before long.

Both playwrights attempt to deal with noncommunication and unhappily fall prey to it. Still, new plays they are, and even failures reflect growth.

Note also should be made of Rich Cluchey's interpretation of "Krapp's Last Tape," by Samuel Beckett, since the actor studied the role under the playwright's guidance in Berlin. Goodman Theater brought Cluckey to Chicago for a US first. There's almost a musical approach that Beckett and his performer bring to the play. As with a funeral march, but syncopated by an earthy humor not unlike those ceremonial marches for the departed in old New Orleans, we are moved surgingly through this elegy of broken dreams.

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