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Theater Review:

"SERENADING LOUIE," ROADWORKS PRODUCTIONS
at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

It’s easy to despise the self-absorbed and self-delusional characters in Lanford Wilson’s "Serenading Louie," which follows two suburban couples struggling to cross the rather shaky bridge of 1960’s radicalism into the bumpy terrain of 1970’s political ennui and disillusionment. But these affluent people – Northwestern University graduates living on Chicago’s North Shore – cannot simply be placed in a bored, upper-class category. Ironically, their seeming shallowness grows out of a complex tangle of misguided values and expectations experienced by most people in general.

Roadworks Productions’ intelligent and softly savage staging at Victory Gardens Theater is capable of burrowing into audience’s subconscious minds in an unexpectedly painful way. Director Abigail Deser maintains an aura of breezy casualness under which percolates a horrifying despondency.

"Serenading Louie" opens with ex-football star Carl coming home to an empty house. His futile summoning of his wife Mary (a former Homecoming queen) suggests infidelity – an issue also faced by their friends Alex and Gabby. Alex, an attorney with political aspirations, has fallen out of love with his chatty, insecure wife Gabby, frustrated at her inability to be the ideal homemaker. Her desperate conversations resonate with greater pathos when juxtaposed against Alex’s casually disinterested silences.

Over the course of two hours -- on Geoffrey M. Curley’s interchangeable picture-perfect, Victorian-tinged living-room interior set – four promising characters downspiral into dementia and oblivion through dialogue that shifts piercingly from fecund to feckless. Although Wilson tends to overstate these severely unhappy couples’ problems, he manages to maintain a conciseness that slices to the core of modern human values – love and materialism rushing toward each other on a deadly collision course.

Carl laments his disengagement from the world. "Remember when things were an event?" he asks Alex, then adds that he can’t even get involved in being betrayed. Yet for all his complaints over his lack of genuine participation in life, Carl is intensely involved in a more dangerous, repressed way – his anger seethes beneath a façade of clueless ease.

Deser directs a group of nuanced actors adept at drawing the most devastating emotions from deep within their beings. David Cromer injects a pathetic sense of resolution into Alex’s high-strung demeanor. Danny McCarthy’s Carl can unleash an almost lethal anxiety from his fretful speeches and brooding silences. Linda Gillum gently reveals Mary’s gnawing regret hidden behind a stylish, chirpy front. As Gabby, Sarah Wellington elicits from her nervous chatter a longing for the return of her once-recognizable identity.

Joel Moritz’s natural lighting (particularly stunning in the opening scene bathed in buttery-golden late-afternoon sunlight) follows the sad course of the characters’ relationships. And sound designer Chris J. Johnson’s ticking grandfather clock morphs psychologically into a time bomb as these lost souls unleash their neuroses inside this deceptively tidy marital mausoleum.•

"Serenading Louie" runs through June 23 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $20-$25. Call 773-871-3000.

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