October 17, 2014 - Are you the shark or are you the chum? So asks the Neo-Futurists’ current offering, Pseudo-Chum. Co-written by Sean Benjamin and Carolyn Benjamin, Pseudo-Chum offers three plays-within-a-play: The Rehearsal, The Performance, and The Interview. Scenes from each are intercut within one another so that the audience has a glimpse into the arduous process of bringing a production to fruition.
The intention, of course, is for the audience to watch as the actors wittily explore whether any production of any show amounts to real art or is simply about attention-seeking for the artists themselves. What the play feels like is sitting through someone else’s therapy session. Maybe that’s part of the plan, but 85 minutes is a very long therapy session if you’re not the person being analyzed.
In all fairness, the playwrights are attempting to delve into a pretty interesting topic that is clearly on their minds and probably on the minds of other artists. How do we know if a work of art—whether performance or visual—is any good? If you’ve had one success, how do you know whether subsequent successes are real or whether you’re coasting on the first big triumph? The Neo-Futurists never really arrive at an answer to that question in Pseudo-Chum, but they do seem to be having a good time treading water. There’s an awful lot of self-referential acting and writing, and practically every other line is delivered with a figurative wink to the audience.
However, all of that “wink, wink, nudge, nudging” gets old pretty quickly, and the joke is on the audience since there’s a lot more show to wade through before it’s over. We watch the actors and director grapple with the interpersonal relationships and the drama that is a rehearsal process. We watch the playwright (who is both the character and one of the literal playwrights of Pseudo-Chum) grapple with the work he’s created. We watch the characters in The Performance lost aboard the good ship Catharsis struggling with the challenges the playwright has foisted up them. And if all that isn’t enough, we’re treated to a finale that attempts to be kind of deconstructionist and sort of Brechtian, but ends up being more of a giant mess.
There are a couple of fun highlights in the show. Aaron Lawson’s exuberant and unexpected rendition of Jack Wagner’s classic 1984 ballad, “All I Need” is delightful, and the bizarre “Kurt and Bert” puppet show about Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht is amusing albeit somewhat incongruous. Also, the vaguely nautical set functions well, and is nicely designed.
The Neo-Futurists’ signature work, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, is comprised of 30 short plays in 60 minutes, and Pseudo-Chum feels like it really wants to be part of that kind of piece. The plays-within-a-play really just amount to a lot of little vignettes (à la T.M.L), but the premise of the whole thing gets stretched too far. Though the ideas contained within Pseudo-Chum are worthy of exploration, the show is sadly lost at sea.
Pseudo-Chum runs at the Neo-Futurists through November 29th.
THEATER REVIEW: By Leslie Price
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Aaron Lawson, Carolyn Benjamin and Sean Benjamin in Pseudo-Chum, playing at The Neo-Futurarium (photo by Daniel Neumann).