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Theater Review:

"IMMORAL IMPERATIVES" at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Considering that Jeffrey Sweet’s "Immoral Imperatives" has the distinction of being the first world premiere of Victory Gardens Theater’s season following the company’s Tony Award for Regional Theatre this past spring – and that it marks artistic director Dennis Zacek’s return to the stage – one would genuinely hope the play lived up to its grandiose honors. Yet although this new dramatic comedy boasts a potentially provocative and complex premise, it opts for too many easy and unexplored dichotomies to carry any burningly relevant weight.

"Immoral Imperatives" admirably attempts to unmask the "modest" delusions of a hypocritical society – a society that is simultaneously permissive and self-righteous. Sweet chooses to tackle this issue against a backdrop of impotence and illness.

His play revolves around four characters whose lives are entwined in unexpectedly uncomfortable ways. Hank, a retired East Coast university professor, and his younger wife Terri move to the Florida Keys, where they invite an old, free-spirited friend, Dale, to live with them after his boat is commandeered by a group of Cubans. Dale also was kicked out by his girlfriend Liz after her ex-husband moved back in.

As the story progresses, we – along with Dale – learn some disturbing things about Terri. She calls Dale to take her home after a guy she picked up in a Key West bar beat her up. This incident provokes the mild-mannered Hank to offer Dale a subtle proposition. Hank’s impotence has forced Terri to seek sexual fulfillment elsewhere. She prostitutes herself very similar to Emily Watson’s tormented character in the heartwrenching film, "Breaking the Waves" – except in a less isolated setting under different circumstances. So Hank suggests that Dale essentially become Terri’s gigolo. This "arrangement," of course, naturally sparks complications – especially when Liz shows up to reconcile with Dale.

But, surprisingly, "Immoral Imperatives" never tackles the layered dilemmas inherent to this unconventional situation, and Sweet’s characters are too superficial and self-interested. Terri has a habit of blurting out her true feelings in such a flippant way that any moral issues get instantly quashed. And Dale, who expresses a few doubts but is quickly willing to service Terri, removes any pressing conflict. Also Viagra is never mentioned; nor is there any kind of discussion of alternative forms of sexual pleasure.

What gets lost within all the genteel tolerance is these characters’ true sense of dignity. The few jealousies that erupt are not sustained enough to incur a sense of danger. And the playwright does not sufficiently shake us out of any ingrained moral code because these people are so vaguely defined. A brief reference to social status also comes across as shallow and obligatory. Finally, the revelation that Hank has a terminal disease does not endow this problematic play with any more emotional complexity.

Director Calvin MacLean certainly has assembled a respected group of actors. But, apart from Tim Grimm’s multitiered portrayal of the decent but conflicted Dale, the other actors seem oddly uncomfortable in their roles – especially the gracious but miscast Kristine Thatcher as Terri. Zacek’s low-key interpretation fails to penetrate Hank’s agonized inner dimensions; and the talented Linda Reiter has nowhere to go with her over-the-top, gum-chomping Liz.

Rarely has morality been so tamely and predictably confronted.

"Immoral Imperatives" runs through October 28 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $28-$22. Call 773-871-3000 or log onto www.victorygardens.org.

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