Chris, the hero of Steve Tesich's rampaging farce "Division Street," which was revived Monday night at Center Stage, stood at the forefront of the radical movement in the 1960s. But he's 37 now and no longer cares a fig for the boat people, excess sugar in kids' cereals, the fate of the baby seals or even the earthen coffee mugs his estranged wife once made. All he wants in life is "a nice condo without a stick of macrame' in it," a walk-in fridge and a job as an underwriter with an insurance company.
"Me, me, me," he says. "That's all I care about."
In no time flat, Chris finds himself besieged by a floundering group of leftovers from that decade of rage and protest, all of whom pine for a rebirth of the movement and want to restore him to a position of leadership. There's the black radical, who underwent a sex change and is now Betty the cop. Roger, on the other hand, has been so traumatized by the sexual demands of today's liberated women that he dresses as an old man to avoid them. With the meagerest of encouragement, Mrs. Bruchinski, a black landlady with a Polish accent, launches into "We Shall Overcome," her voice as tremulous as her eyes are misty, while Yovan, a Yugoslavian pamphleteer, throws bombs and tantrums and keeps getting knocked to the ground by slamming doors.
However promising that may sound in theory, "Division Street" is a shambles in practice. The more you learn about these and several other equally wild misfits, the less engaging the evening becomes. In this instance, "The more the merrier" is not an operative principle.
Granted, it is in the nature of farce to get out of hand, but "Division Street" scrambles its way, harum-scarum, into the realm of the ludicrous, piling eccentricity upon exaggeration and utterly disregarding in the process those logical underpinnings that shore up the best farces. Structurally, it resembles a handful of confetti in a high wind. Although events are supposedly set in Chicago, the hub of radical causes in the 1960s, they are really taking place in the capriciousness of Tesich's imagination.
Because they don't ever appear to have had their feet on the ground, the Center Stage actors, under the direction of Stan Wojewodski Jr., encounter massive problems convincing us they're caught up in a whirlwind. If their quixotic behavior is sometimes funny, it is almost never believable. As Chris, Keith Langsdale has a long, handsome face but a flyweight's presence on stage; he's a most unlikely magnet for the flakes that come drifting back into his life.
Only two of the actors, in fact, manage to hold to a true course, perhaps because they figure less prominently in the confusions and don't have time to overdo their welcome. Carolyn Hurlburt is an absolute doozy as Chris' wife, a creature who talks entirely in cliche' lyrics wrenched from pop songs. And Gerald Gilmore, as the transsexual policewoman, is as straightforward as circumstances permit. In the midst of so much rampant nonsense, Gilmore's no-nonsense performance is one of the few indications that maybe Tesich actually started out to write about real people in the post-'60s flux.
"I'm a virgin," trembles a nebbishy lawyer, who, for the first time in his long gray life, is actually on the receiving end of a proposition, albeit from Betty, the cop.
"I just became a virgin myself," cracks Betty, thereby dissolving the lawyer's resistance in a trice. The incontrovertible logic Gilmore brings to the retort is perfectly voiced and very funny. Unfortunately, it is not a quality that exists in abundance along "Division Street."
DIVISION STREET. By Steve Tesich. Directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr.; set, Richard R. Goodwin; costumes, Del W. Risberg; lighting, Bonnie Ann Brown. With Keith Langsdale, Paulene Myers, Victor Argo, Carolyn Hurlburt, Billy Padgett, Sarah Chodoff, John Madden Towey, Gerald Gilmore. At Center Stage through Jan. 23.