The Long Christmas
Ride HomePlaywright: Paula Vogel. At: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway Tickets: 773-528-9696; www.strawdog.org; $28 Runs through Dec. 12
The Lisbon Traviata
Playwright: Terrence McNally At: Eclipse Theatre Company at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6875; www.eclipsetheatre.com; $30. Runs through Dec. 13
In two Chicago revivals of acclaimed off-Broadway works by out playwrights, bad relationship breakups drive the drama while the specter of AIDS is ominously present. Strawdog Theatre has brought back the Japanese Bunraku-style puppets written into Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home, while Eclipse Theatre Company concludes its three-play Terrence McNally season with the obsessive opera queens of The Lisbon Traviata.
Vogel's 2003 narrative-driven drama analytically picks apart events leading to the title incident that causes a bitter interfaith marriage breakdown ( Ed Dzialo and Loretta Rezos play the sparring parents ). Vogel also explores the confused thoughts and painful legacy of that event on the couple's three kids of Rebecca ( Sarah Gitenstein ), Stephen ( Sam Hubbard ) and Claire ( Kristen Johnson ).
What makes Vogel's play so theatrical is that the children are puppets manipulated by their older selves. It's as if they're not fully-formed humans who can only speculate on the severity of their parents' bickering. Later Vogel shows them as adults brushing up against death amid their own relationship failures.
Director Josh Sobel's intimate and ominous production is top notch with funny and touching performances all around, though there are some questionable staging decisions. Sobel's use of puppetry to interact with the grown kids can come off as too laughable ( the lesbian shadow puppets being an exception ), while Peter Carpenter's solo choreography for actor John Taflan meanders on too long near the end.
Otherwise, the strong Strawdog cast serves a solid take on The Long Christmas Ride Home. It's a dramatic antidote to the cheery shows that typically crowd the holiday season.
Alas, it is questionable casting by director Steve Scott that doesn't allow Eclipse's The Lisbon Traviata to fully sing. McNally's 1989 comic drama requires an operatic outpouring of passionparticularly for the Maria Callas-obsessed characters of Mendy ( JP Pierson ) and Stephen ( Joe McCauley ).
Pierson and McCauley's banter in Act I feels studied instead of embodying gay guys who live and breathe all things opera. The fact that they mispronounced a few singer names and opera titles doesn't help.
Things become much more convincing in the second act, as Stephen confronts his open-relationship lover, Mike ( Joel Reitsma ), and his younger boy toy, Paul ( Luke Daigle, who can proudly show everything off in a nude scene ). Reitsma's rage as Mike feels very genuine, though I would have preferred more desperation from McCauley's Stephenespecially given the play's shocking conclusion.
As a late 1980s period piece, The Lisbon Traviata shines a light onto the bitchiness of opera queens' obsessions at the time while also reflecting how much AIDS terrorized people in the gay community. Eclipse's production could have been a potent reminder of all that, but the passion to get it just right isn't fully there.