Eloise and Ray
Playwright: Stephanie Fleischmann
At: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Phone: (866) 468-3401
Runs through: Feb. 23
BY RICK REED
At the start of Roadworks' latest effort, I was intrigued. On a huge video screen at the rear of a thrust proscenium stage, jerky, grainy visions of the American southwest came to life (video projections were created by Logan Kibbens). On the screen were visions of alienation played out on plains riddled with heat lightning. The voice of a young girl waxed lyrical about her life and loss, telling us how she lost her mother, the way her father abandoned her, and the love she had for an older brother whom she believed had escaped the monotony and desolation of Ovid, Colo., to New York City. When the lights finally come up to reveal Eloise, a 16-year-old waif with smudged mascara, wild hair, and a costume of ripped fishnets, army boots, and cut-offs, I thought we might truly be heading into a work of substance and depth, the kind of thing I had seen this company do so well on so many occasions.
I was mistaken. Eloise and Ray, ostensibly about coming of age and finding one's own place in the world, is burdened with a dreadful script by a new playwright who obviously had no idea what she was writing about. Despite the efforts of some of Chicago's most gifted and innovative designers (including set Geoffrey M. Curley's set, Kristine Knanishu's costumes, and sound and music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) to tart up this not very original, not very deep script, what emerges here is a voice that rings with lack of authority. Early on, it was obvious that, despite playwright Fleischmann's fascination with these hard scrabble, down-on-their luck characters, and the dull, monotony of the place they inhabit, she had no real feel for what she was writing about. Oh, maybe she has a feel for theme and subtext, but those things need to come to life in a dramatic way for a play to breathe and be credible. It seemed the playwright had never really known people like the ones she was trying to portray, at least not in any significant way. And her knowledge of the environment that spawned them was highly romanticized, no matter how grim. Fleischmann was never able to convey a voice of authority about her characters or her setting. What results is pretense masquerading as artifice and artsy contrivances trying, ineffectively, to stand in for substance.
Worse, Fleischmann has created characters about whom we fail to care … the trio of losers she depicts are not people we would ever want to spend any time with, even if it is a 90-minute performance piece brought to life by a talented trio (Danny McCarthy, Laura Scheinbaum, and Jacquelyn Flaherty). If she had bothered to give Eloise some sympathetic characterization, the play might have had a heart. Instead, Eloise's pretentious dialogue, banal metaphor (she compares herself to a pearl), and just oddness without charm distances us from her. And we must be at her side every minute for the play to succeed in winning our hearts and out intellects.
Unfortunately, this play succeeds in being only a creatively dressed bore, pretentious and immature. Although I saw a preview, I don't think the constitutional problems the play exhibited can be fixed by opening night. For that kind of repair, the playwright might have to resort to a couple of tried and true writing adages: write about what you know, and give your audience at least one character for whom they can care.