January 25, 2005

Neo-Futurists' ode to alcohol may kill your buzz

I'm drunk, and I'm writing. And now that I've seen the Neo-Futurists' Drinking and Writing Volume II: The Noble Experiment, I know that I'm part of a long, hallowed tradition shared by the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. If I continue this behavior, my children will be affected for the worse and will tell quietly disturbing stories about me in Chicago bars.

You know what? I hate plays. But this isn't a play—it's an "environmental docudrama" done by people who normally put on plays. They're called actors. One of them works at UT, and her name is Chloe Johnston. More about her later.

There were several problems with the "environmental docudrama" tag. For starters, we weren't in Paris or a speakeasy (though Jimmy's is pretty old) so the environment wasn't accurate—though I guess a bar makes more sense than a theater. What's more, the biographical material was pretty scant. The actors were basically just reading quotes about drinking from famous 1920s writers. And finally, the dramatic portion of the show consisted of the players telling us about how their parents were pretty much alcoholics—thereby killing any amaretto sour---buzz I may have been enjoying.

Which brings me to the big question: In what state should youngsters watch this reading/bitching/inquiry that happens to be performed in a bar? I'd had an amaretto sour. It was a big amaretto sour because they were out of small glasses. The more I drank, the better the play became. It was never uproariously funny or meaningful, but it got less awkward (the actors are kind of awkward, and it's weird to be lectured in a bar). Then the three actors started telling us about their fathers' DUI charges, how they drained the dregs of gin and tonics left over from family dinners, and how their family members were intoxicated for most of their young lives. The subsequent "light-hearted" jokes didn't do enough to brighten the mood.

A similarly tired, creepy tone came when the actors mock-interviewed each other about their own writing and drinking. This scene contained some brilliant analogies—such as when Sean Benjamin used the slight difference in genetic makeup between humans and apes to illustrate the difference between his writing abilities when he's drunk and when he's sober. Also, somebody posed a very meaningful question: "What do you prohibit in yourself?" Because the show's about Prohibition. Deep.

A downtrodden tone is not what a play in a bar needs. It needs more confidence on the part of UT employee Chloe Johnston, who had a few great deliveries but mostly seemed adorably uneasy with her lines. (This technique doesn't work the way it should with an intoxicated audience.) But most of all, the piece needs to know have a point. Saying "environmental docudrama" 10 times fast won't help the audience figure out why one minute we're raising our glasses to longtime drunk H.L. Mencken, and the next minute, we're listening to the actors' family- or creativity-based insecurities.

Drinking & Writing sits at a bar. To its left are the college kids who came to your fourth-grade classroom to do the "cool" science experiments and made learning look like fun. To its right are the college kids who came to the classroom to teach you about how it's not OK for adults to touch you in your private places and made everyone feel sort of queasy. D&W doesn't know if it's a salute to inspirational beverages or an admonition against them. With a beer in hand—many were handed out during the "Pop Quiz for a Pint" segments—members of the audience don't need to be creeped out by the premature deaths of many of the players' idols.

D&W is not amazing. If it's not two blocks away from where you live, I don't recommend going. It achieves neither highs or lows, which underscores the absurdity of the actors comparing themselves to the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald in their shoddily done-up interviews. Next to the great drunken writers, these young drinkers and writers are allowed to make fun of themselves—but they should hold off when making serious comparisons. A definite laugh was had when Benjamin read his own drunken writing.

I'll raise a glass to Volume III being a bit more light-hearted, a bit more about the writers we know and love, and less about some writers we've never heard of who just happened to pop into our neighborhood bar one night.

D&W plays at the Small Bar in Logan Square on the 27th at 8 p.m., and the Green Mill, which was an actual Prohibition Era speakeasy, in Uptown on the 30th at 4 p.m.