Regional Reviews: Chicago
As a marketing gimmick, it's a fantastic title and, as a play (dare I say it?), F**king Men is also a big improvement on Arthur Schnitzler's original, La Ronde, an 1890s Viennese sex farce of light bawdiness that seems to wink and say, time and again, "look, isn't it funny? Everyone likes sex and passion!" Most of the men in the original have a leering air, and three out of five of Schnitzler's women seem to talk a lot like Ado Annie. In his 2008 re-write, DiPietro borrows many of the characters from the original: The Whore; The Soldier; and The Young Gentlemanwho becomes a stoner college kid. Then there's The Young Wife, who becomes a heartbroken "longtime companion" to his Husband; who takes up with the much sought-after Little Miss, now a male porn actor; and an overly poetic Playwright; as well as an Actress who's now morphed into a nasty, "tabloid version" of Tom Cruise in this all-male cast. But, unlike the original, each character here has a unique voice and story.
DiPietro and director Tom Mullen also manage to create a mood that's grim and anxious and outrageous, by turns, where locale after locale could well be tagged "AYOR" in your Damron Guide. If you're not familiar with the original plot structure, essentially "person A" seduces "person B," and "person B" seduces "person C," and so on, through a ten-person "alphabet," till the last person finally completes the circle by seducing "person A." But DiPietro elegantly twists and turns that simple structure till it's more of a wreath than a ronde, capturing the bitter irony of the freedoms modern gay Americans may enjoy, set against a yearning for something a bit less maddening.
Most excitingly, the real art of this production is in the way Mullen and his actors take on these archetypes (such as the smoothly cheating HusbandKarmann Bajuyoand his sad spouse, played touchingly by Thad Anzur) and make them fresh and spontaneous and real. Armand Fields is the wise-beyond-his-years college tutor, struggling with the strangely painful burdens of non-commitment, and Christian Kain Blackburn is the porn actor coming to terms with an identity that he himself finds vaguely ridiculous.
It's true that, half the time, most of these characters seem to be more committed to their own genitalia than to each othercreating conflicts which gives us some fine comedy, as well as some genuinely sultry and smoldering scenes. And, to everyone's credit, all of them are caught in the powerful undertow of complex human relationships.
Arthur Luis Soria opens the show, twisting and turning on the taut, hairy ropes of a swing set, in what appears to be a children's playground at night. He gets right to the heart of Schnitzler's Whore character (here, John), languidly dismissing the posing of an inquisitive young Soldier, played by Cameron Harms. And somewhere between Mr. Harms' twangy accent and the extreme awkwardness of the moment, he creates a character of stark believability, fully the equal of Mr. Soria's.
And on and on, through the circle: The Soldier meets a college tutor (Mr. Fields) in a bathhouse (DiPietro's sly translation of Schnitzler's choice of an amusement park); he, in turn, meets the wildly impetuous Cameron Johnson, who later arranges a meeting (via computer) with Mr. Anzur's fascinatingly distraught Leo. He gets two splendid (sometimes funny), quietly tormented scenes, including one with his longtime companion (Mr. Bajuyo) who manages to be charming, even as he plays the controlling "more-successful" husband. I'll say it again: F**king Men is a huge improvement over the original "naughty" Viennese comedy.
Next, Mr. Bajuyo, follows the handsome Christian Kain Blackburn through the streets (in another echo of La Ronde) into a scene where we feel more of the earnest but sardonic dismay of Blackburn over his work in porn videos. And after that, when Ryan Lanning comes home with him, it's the beginning of two very funny scenes in which Lanning is the awkward, ridiculous playwright who's too good to be popular. He (in turn) gets into a scandalous situation with Beau Forbes (great as the scurrilous, closeted action-hero). And after all of that, it's up to Norm Woodel, imposing as a high-profile journalist/fixer, to somehow set things right.
You could fault F**king Men for ending nearly every vignette on an upbeat note, or for its final moments, where the cast delivers a strangely blithe assurance that all who've loved and lost will inevitably find some kind of a replacement, sooner or later. No heterosexual in their right mind would buy that bridge, which (in a vaguely horrifyingly way) devalues the meaning of any one singular relationship with the sweep of a hand. (For the record, I didn't care for the staging I saw at the end of a production of his I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change either.) But ultimately, DiPietro scores the final knock-out punch, as F**king Men takes ownership of its own epithetical title, gracefully restoring humanity to a demonized American minority.
Extended through August 29, 2010, by Bailiwick Chicago, at Theatre 773. The venue is located at 1225 West Belmont, about five short blocks (3/10ths mile) west of the Belmont stop for the Brown and Red "El" lines. For information call (773) 327-5252, or visit them online at www.bailiwickchicago.com