Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Innocence of Seduction
Also see Karen's recent review of Gay Card
Pracht approaches the era from three wisely chosen vantage points that illustrate the impact of the era's paranoia on the various historical figures. William Gaines struggles to both keep his father's pioneering comic company afloat and to transform it for changing times. Matt Baker, famed for the buxom women of his romance comics, has to face the potential loss of his livelihood while also navigating the world as a Black, closeted gay man. And Janice Valleau, known for her depictions of Betty and Veronica as well as her creation of Toni Gayle, crime-fighting fashion model, is forced to confront the reality that the male-dominated industry she has fought to establish herself in is quick to force out the few women who have managed to get their foot in the door.
G. "Max" Maxin IV is credited with the scenic, lighting, and projection design, all of which are masterfully executed. The space at City Lit is small and can be challenging, but Maxin more than overcomes this. The centerpiece of the set is a large screen surrounded by the suggestion of an old tube TV, appropriately rendered in comic-book style. At stage right is Gaines' grubby EC Comics office, and upstage left is a drafting board, two stools, and a door representing Quality Comics. Both St. John Comics and Matt Baker's apartment, roughly center stage and a few steps down from the screen, are suggested by a simple wooden bar and a narrow bed that pulls out. In between the three main spaces, Maxin fills in behind the flats with the suggestion of New York buildings, black with perpetually lit yellow windows.
Maxin also approaches the lighting and projection design with genre-appropriate gusto. As Dr. Frederic Wertham, one of the villains of the piece, skulks and lurks and occasionally pops into frame, the lights shift unapologetically to a lurid green. Gaines' nightmares of his deceased father are lit with similar appreciation for the outsized-everything nature of the comics, as are the projections that waver and glide across the set.
Most inventive (and impressively practice), though, is the screen that dominates center stage. It serves to establish where a scene is set through the use of the various company logos or a simple graphic indicating a domestic space. Late in the play, it projects a grainy live feed of Gaines as he voluntarily (and ill-advisedly) testifies before Congress. This not only invites the audience into the character's mindset as his testimony quickly spirals out of control, but it also offers the opportunity to show the footage again from Janice and her coworker's point of view. Moreover, during intermission, the company runs the episode of Paul Coates' "Confidential File" that links horror comics to juvenile delinquency.
If Maxin's contributions to the production tap into the heightened and the surreal, Beth Laske-Miller's costumes play the important role of underscoring that these characters are versions of real people. Laske-Miller succeeds through simplicity. The slouchy pants she dresses Gaines in are held up by a battered belt and force of will that may fail at any moment. Archer St. John's pastels and patterns are just flamboyant enough (and enough of a contrast to Matt Baker's carefully nondescript suits) to signal his ability to be something close to out–a privilege Matt, as a Black man, certainly does not enjoy. Janice's everyday skirts and cardigans tell a different story than the comparatively feminine outfit she wears when she's job hunting.
Sean Harklerode (William Gaines), Brian Bradford (Matt Baker), and Megan Clarke (Janice Valleau) all imbue their characters with real humanity. Harklerode is tasked with much of the comedy, and he acquits himself well in this regard, but he does not shy away from making the audience feel for him as he squirms on the stand. Bradford's performance is subtle and effective enough that one wishes he and the character had a bit more stage time. Bradford and Andrew Bosworth, who plays Matt's best friend Frank, among other characters, work well together, lending depth to Baker, despite his slightly underwritten storyline. And last, but certainly not least, Clarke threads the needle with her portrayal of Valleau, hitting the audience with all the pluck she can muster, but never veering into caricature.
Frank Nall appears to be enjoying himself thoroughly as the fiendish, constantly projecting Dr. Frederic Wertham. Every once in a while, there seems to be the danger that the character, with all his props and his near omnipresence, might become too much, but Nall pulls it back from the edge every time.
In the supporting cast, Charlie Diaz does an exceptional job as Al Feldstein, the beleaguered straight man to Gaines' anxiety-plagued comedy. When the dialogue is truly firing on all cylinders, it's most often in a scene with Diaz, who plays impressively off Zach Kunde as Lyle Stuart. John Blick captures the breezy, carefree vibe of Archer St. John, as well as the dark undercurrent that hints at the end the character meets, despite his constant assertions that the comics scare will all "blow over."
The role of Shirley, Gaines' acerbic secretary, at times feels a bit too much like a female character added in recognition of the fact that the story is necessarily weighted toward male characters. Certainly, the instinct to put women on the stage where possible is a laudable one, and Laura Coleman's performance erases any qualms about Shirley being a bit gratuitous.
The play's other supporting women, played by LaTorious Givens (Connie) and Jessica Lauren Fisher (Jessie Gaines and Gertrude St. John), don't fare as well as Coleman does. Their scenes are very brief and the text deals in quite broad strokes. Both actors are capable, but both the material and the direction seem to need more attention, as the tone and emotion for both these characters doesn't quite land.
Paul Chakrin and Robin Treviño both do double-duty. Chakrin is believably irascible and avuncular John L. Goldwater of MLJ Comics, and he is up for the challenge of playing Senator Robert Hendrickson as one half of a comedy duo. Treviño is slick and high energy as Everett "Busy" Arnold, the boss at Quality Comics who is hell bent on being everyone's friend, and as the camera hungry Senator Estes Kefauver, he plays to the absurdity and opportunism at the center of the hearings.
As Judge Charles F. Murphy, administrator of the Comics Code, Chuck Munro borrows a bit of Nall's sinister Wertham vibe, transforming it into the soul-crushing evil of rigid, hyper-literal bureaucracy.
The Innocence of Seduction runs through October 8, 2023, at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue (inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church), Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.citylit.org or call 773-293-3682.