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Chicago by John Olson

Cradle of Man
Victory Gardens Theater

Also see John's review of Love Song

Cradle of Man
Sean Cooper and David Eigenberg
Though the costs of intercontinental travel have fallen to the point where many middle-class Americans can afford to go to Africa, that continent remains relatively uncharted territory as a setting for our films and plays. Playwright Melanie Marnich's decision to set this comedy-drama in Tanzania was her smartest. The "cradle" of the title is the Olduvai Gorge, said to be the location where ancient man first began to walk upright, and Ms. Marnich uses the setting as a background to consider the current stage of humankind's evolution. Unfortunately, Cradle of Man carries insufficient wisdom or insight to deliver on that ambition.

Two fortyish American couples and the mother of one of the husbands arrive for a week's stay in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. The families are traveling separately and are initially unknown to each other. The couple from Milwaukee is Jack (played by Sex and the City's David Eigenberg), working with a philanthropic group called the "Volunteer Adventuristas," and his wife Bonnie (Jennie Moreau) who explores the city independently. Jack's mother Mona (Peggy Roeder) is attending an Elder Hostel anthropology seminar taught by Debra (Julie Ganey), visiting from Northern Virginia with nebbish husband Mason (Sean Cooper) who sets out to view the city on his own. Though the families are staying at separate hotels, paths coincidentally cross, first when Bonnie flirts with Mason at a bar.

Bonnie, who has been shown to enjoy an active sex life with husband Jack, is quite confident in her flirtation with Mason and seems to become a different, more aggressive person when away from her husband. This is never quite explained, though it is later revealed that she in the past had caught Jack in an extramarital affair. Jack's behavior in the first act is similarly confusing. Sometimes moody and short-tempered, at other times loving and sensitive, his behavior, like Bonnie's, doesn't add up to a comprehensible or intriguing character until he gets more stage time in act two.

In the second act, the men happen to meet at another (or perhaps the same) bar, not yet knowing the connections their families have made in the previous days. Jack coaches Mason on the need for men to affirm their manhood, exulting in the mystical ability of the African continent to bring out the true nature of their masculinity. The mystery and majesty of a cocktail lounge in a full-service resort hotel in a capital city will do that, apparently. Jack inadvertently persuades Mason to give in to Bonnie's advances, but by play's end all secrets are revealed in this overly diagrammatic plot.

This plot is interspersed with excerpts of Debra's lectures to the Elder Hostel group, establishing the anthropological significance of Olduvai Gorge and serving as a basis for contemplating the degree to which modern society may have evolved since homo sapiens first walked upright. Her observations seem to have something to do with man's need for adventure versus domesticity and may also include monogamy as some sort of measure of evolution, but her ideas are not particularly insightful nor intriguing enough for further contemplation.

Marnich's characters sound like real people, but not interesting ones. They're more like the kind of people who try to appear clever by using worn-out expressions like "that's the mother I know and love," or "that was so politically incorrect of me." They're the type of people who, if you met them at a party, you would excuse yourself to go to the bar for a drink. Unfortunately, it would have been inappropriate for me to do that before intermission.

The cast and direction have an awkward pacing and mechanical nature that suggests a lack of commitment to the material. Eigenberg nearly brings the show to life for a while in act two when we get to see Jack as a slightly older, slightly cruder and more jaded version of Eigenberg's Sex and the City character (Miranda's husband, Steve Brady). Eigenberg does the "regular guy" persona better than anyone, and in the second act scene where he bares his soul a bit, we get a hint of the empathy Marnich may have for middle-aged, middle-class men, but without the insight and wisdom she would need to make this a more satisfying play. She's even less successful with the other characters, giving little backstory on Bonnie, providing no depth of college professor Debra and using cut-and-paste characters for nerdy Mason and "crude-grandma" Mona. Additionally (and this is somewhat of a spoiler, though the term connotes a diminishing of enjoyment, which I'm not sure would be possible here), Marnich stoops to not one but two tragic plot twists. Both are entirely unearned and could be called manipulative if there were any chance anyone would believe them enough to be moved.

For what it's worth, the production designers, including set designer Keith Pitts, Costume Designer Judith Lundberg and Sound Designer Andre Pluess, succeed in using the small stage to evoke the locales in and round Dar es Salaam.

I should disclose that a joke early in the play may have colored my judgment ever so slightly. When Mason, who has just met Bonnie and is trying too hard to appear friendly and sympathetic, learns that she's from Milwaukee, he says "oh, Milwaukee's great." As a native Milwaukeean, though I must admit I have never heard anyone actually say that phrase in real life, my goodwill toward the author (and the audience who gave it one of the evening's bigger laughs) was not enhanced. I responded during intermission by pushing aggressively through the audience in the crowded lobby of the Victory Gardens' soon to be vacated home. If that shows where I sit on the evolutionary scale, so be it.

Cradle of Man runs through May 7, 2006 at the Victory Gardens Theater 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. There will be additional matinees on Wednesdays April 19 and 26, but no performance on April 18 and no evening performance on April 19. For tickets and information, call (773) 871-3000 or buy tickets online at www.victorygardens.org.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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