November 13, 2007

‘Arrangement for Two Violas’ needs fine-tuning

How is a violist like a prostitute? They both get paid to fake climaxes‘Arrangement for Two Violas’Starring Tom Trudgeon, Brent Gettelfinger, Betty Zielinski and Bob Zielinski. Directed by Michael Drury. Written by Susan Lieberman. A Pandora Productions show that continues through Nov. 25. For tickets, call 245-9676 or visit www.pandoraprods.org.Music plays second fiddle to melodrama in Susan Lieberman’s “Arrangement for Two Violas.” Pandora Productions’ staging of Chicagoan Lieberman’s play is only the fourth time it’s been seen, and with good reason. Lieberman breaks every rule of good dramatic construction. Heads were nodding — but not in approval — at Friday night’s performance.    Lieberman lazily employs a series of endless soliloquies to advance that “bane of playwrights” — historical exposition. As the play begins, Dr. Peter Chase (Tom Trudgeon) tells his life story to the audience. Trudgeon seemingly forgot his lines early on, stalling for time by awkwardly placing his viola in a trunk. Wait a minute … it looked more like a violin. Oh, well, what’s the difference? This play has nothing to do with music.    Peter tells us he was chased out of town because he could only give his wife “limp lettuce” instead of a “carrot” during their brief marriage. (These cutesy euphemisms are the playwright’s actual words.) When he gets a raging “carrot” while watching young men swimming, their sham marriage is kaput. He lands in another small 1930s-era Wisconsin town, where his only friends are Nan and Karl Schuler, middle-aged socialists (Betty and Bob Zielinski) who run the local newspaper. The Schulers convince Peter to meet Karl’s Milwaukee heart specialist, Dr. Henry Meegan (Brent Gettelfinger). Karl thinks Peter will meet better-looking nurses there.    Nan and Karl’s interaction is unnaturally stiff and phony because of the script they‘re forced to work with. They speak in low-context expository dialog (the kind you hear between strangers) even though they’ve been married for centuries.     While courting, Peter and Henry engage in long expository conversations filled with past-tense verbs. Henry, who has just met Peter, implausibly recounts his violent rape by a dockworker he met at a gay bar. After relating this story, Peter and Henry fall in love that very night.      Lieberman assaults the audience’s intelligence by endlessly spoon-feeding facts and corny jokes about violists she probably plundered from the Internet. When Peter tells Karl how many sugars (two and a half) Henry takes in his coffee, Karl’s “gaydar” goes haywire. Not content to let the audience figure this out on its own, Lieberman has Karl explain to Nan that only a wife would know this information. Therefore, Peter must be “queer.” Hardly the reaction you’d expect from a man who champions Margaret Sanger in his newspaper.     With so much bad writing, it’s no wonder the actors often fumbled for their lines. Trudgeon and Betty Zielinski were the worst offenders, stamping their feet, slapping the table and making that “tsk” sound before beginning a line. Bob Zielinski and Gettelfinger were personable, but the weak plot, hackneyed theme and empty dialog hampered their acting skills.    Lieberman’s faked climax is so predictable, you know by the end of the first few scenes how the star-crossed affair will end. The conflict is limper than the wilted lettuce Peter gave his wife. Will Peter leave his rural medical practice to go with Henry, who has inexplicably morphed into a suicidal stalker, to New York where they can live openly as homosexuals?     Who really cares?