At: Royal George, 1641 N. Halsted
Phone: (312) 988-9000; $20
Runs through: Fri., Sat. through Oct. 2
The idea for Verbatim Verboten is great. A rotating revue of secretly recorded telephone conversations and other transcripts of the famous and infamous (celebrities, sports figures, and politicians), gives the audience a glimpse into their private lives by offering up conversation never intended for public consumption. The execution isn't bad either. Director Michael Martin has assembled a mostly agile cast, able to wrap themselves around various public figures with skill, imagination, and the change-on-demand skills of a chameleon.
But Verbatim Verboten proves that even a good idea with competent execution doesn't always guarantee an effective theatrical piece. What Verbatim Verboten lacks is cohesiveness, a compelling through line, and a clear voice to make us care. What it does have, to its fault, is a lot of self-indulgence, a lack of heart, and an inability to sort comedic or dramatic gold from the blah detritus one might refer to as tin.
The best bits in Verbatim Verboten (which is a staged reading—word for word—of taped recordings) give us glimpses into public personas that we rarely get to see. So, when Warren Levon does a great Satchmo impersonation and lets us hear a little bit about Armstrong's views of race relations, it's funny and informative. Or when we see Ariel Brenner become Miriam Santos and see exactly how she strong-armed campaign donations, we get a glimpse into why she was the center of a Chicago political fiasco. When Jenny Magnus becomes Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia, she turns his rant about unappreciative fans into profane poetry. And Dave Awl shows us what it was like to work with a bloated and dying Orson Welles on television advertising. It's too bad more of the show didn't have stuff like this; then it might have had a chance to be an entertaining evening.
But we are bogged down with the pedestrian, the kinds of things we already know about and have heard about ad nauseam: Marilyn Monroe had an affair with JFK, Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers were fooling around, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise's marriage was rocky toward the end (and gasp! Might all-American boy Tom have queer leanings?!), Jeri Ryan's husband wanted her to perform sex acts in sex clubs, and Fred Durst is foul-mouthed and Britney Spears vapid. We are yawning with the self-indulgent: a trial transcript from the Chicago 7 trial with Mayor Daley on the witness stand (played for what seemed like an hour at the same fever pitch, making me long for the days when it was common for audience members to throw rotten vegetables to show their displeasure), a conversation between some mafia bigwigs, spiced up to make them gay instead of Italian, and 'shooting day' a recurring piece that says the same thing times four: that Chicago payrollees are corrupt and stupid. And finally, while we appreciate the daring and the irreverent, we find it in poor taste to make a laughing stock of a drunken and dying Judy Garland.
Although I can't speak for every show the ensemble puts together (each night is different); the one I saw could benefit from a firmer directorial hand and a better idea of what's entertainment.