This is the funniest play ever written. For anyone in any aspect of theater, for anyone who has a season subscription anywhere, for all American high school drama students.
This is the first time I have ever actually slapped my knees in hilarity, my laugh unabashedly turning into a snort, my enthusiasm for the razor-sharp script so exuberant that I must warn SPOILER ALERT for the plethora of bon mots revealed below.
The Second City and Writers Theatre collaboration is written by Tim Sniffen, from an idea co-created by Tim Ryder, directed by Stuart Carden and Writers’ Artistic Director Michael Halberstam. It plops the pillars of mid-century American theater into Stanley Kowalski’s (Michael Perez) New Orleans living room, with his recently-released-from-the-loony-bin sister-in-law Blanche (Jennifer Engstrom), alongside Death of a Salesman’s super sad sack Willy Loman (Marc Grapey), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s mega-mismatched couple George (John Hoogenakker, through July 17) and Martha (understudy Elaine Rivkin), under the supercilious narrative drone of Our Town’s Stage Manager (Sean Fortunato).
These Tims know these plays inside and out, and delight in unspooling and recombining the plots and characters into an amalgam of the unmistakable “power of American theater.”
Under the antique rifle on the wall (given by the neighbor Chekhov), they’ve all been summoned by a mysterious telegram (Blanche says “I’ll just foreshadow my letter for now”), to the former house of Big Daddy (“whose son’s homosexuality gave him cancer”), each in their wheelhouse: Blanche to finally marry her mysterious Shep, Willy to make a sale, George and Martha to meet their fabricated son, and Stanley, in a perpetually pit-stained t-shirt (he still “doesn’t know the benefits of antiperspirant”), to figure out fatherhood after his baby was born (and he, “a sweaty Gap Casual billboard,” yells “STELLA” to his absent wife because his cell phone has poor service).
Like a well-orchestrated sitcom, the laughs come hard and fast, pointing up worn-out theatrical conventions, overused metaphors, and heightened character types, ending after a brisk 70 minutes, “right before it’s all too much,” noted Fortunato after the show. His Stage Manager adds that they also didn’t offer any intermission because some subscribers might not come back.
He says, “I’m a folksy narrator, and I have an accent, like butter over Mark Twain, so you’ll feel safe in my hands. I’ll be on the side sittin’ and hummin’ and whittlin’.”
“I save the playwright a lot of work,” he explains. “I say what should be on stage.”
And we’re off and running. Blanche “drinks turpentine, and has sex with strangers. We hope she doesn’t find Craigslist.” When asked about her prospects for this visit, she remembers that “it didn’t go well last time.”
George (“Anger Management”) and Martha’s (“everything you say is boring”) hobbies are revealed as “alcohol and resentment.” “Faded Glory” Willy “makes animal shelter commercials look fun,” is estranged from his sons due to his unreasonable expectations (one son is called Biff; the other’s birth certificate says “not Biff”), and has no idea what he sells since he’s never sold anything.
After Blanche repeatedly over-emotes about the heat and needing a man, “the sound of feminism’s head exploding” is noted, as is the Streetcar called “not in service.”
Other classics get passing mentions as well, including Million Dollar Quartet, the rival bowling team with members Glen, Garry and Ross (Stanley’s ad hoc team has shirts sponsored by “All My Sons Tanning Salon”), the “Godot” pizza parlor (with a stark tree on the manager’s apron), Harvey’s six-foot invisible rabbit, the iceman who never comes (but when he does, “sticks around for five and a half hours”), Tom from The Glass Menagerie who’s informed he’s gay, and the blind horses of Equus.
Of course, time is spent in Grover’s Corners where “isn’t the garden a symbol?” and a father is “gonna go stare at the land,” the young man finds masturbation tricky while Emily yearns to “see a minority,” where heaven is a “really ambitious theatrical choice for the 1930s.” It’s a place where “spring represents rebirth, don’tcha think?”
Amidst other changes, George and Martha are finally convinced to attend AA meetings–“new strangers to judge? I’m in!” Blanche creates a school to “prepare for the unkindness of strangers,” and, to The Breakfast Club’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” theme song, the appreciative audience is told the creative team “slapped the word ‘parody’ at the end and hoped they don’t get sued.”
The production is a parody but also a love letter, a punch and a hug, a wicked and joyful salute to theatrical history. Theater fans of all types should make the sojourn to Glencoe to see this one (and to also see the gorgeous new Writers Theatre space!). However, as a caveat: The fun is packed with theater in-jokes. So skip it if you’re not a theater regular.
Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf has been extended through July 31, at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe,. Tickets and information are available at 847-242-6000.