Deal With It
Bad Habits at the Vortex Theatre
By Steven Robert Allen
Some of us smoke. Some of us drink. Some of us cultivate elaborate perverted fantasies involving gigantic purple bunnies. Even the most straitlaced people in the world have a bad habit or two they wouldn't mind discarding. Of course, getting rid of bad habits is like getting rid of the in-laws; sooner or later, they'll almost certainly be back—with a vengeance.
Terrence McNally's somewhat obscure play from the early '70s, Bad Habits, is a dark comedy about the extreme lengths to which many of us will go to cope with our habitual vices. A new production of the play directed by Marty Epstein is running for one more weekend at the Vortex Theatre.
Bad Habits is really two connected plays rolled into one. Each takes place at a separate retreat. In the first retreat, Dunelawn, the director is Dr. Pepper (heh, heh), a highly unorthodox thinker who believes his patients can only cure their neurotic behavior by giving in to every base urge. He encourages his wards to smoke an especially satisfying brand of tobacco fertilized in hen feces. He preaches the virtues of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. He thoroughly believes that if you feel like slapping or choking someone then you should damn well do it.
He's assisted by a creepy androgynous German butler named Otto. His patients include a married pair of third-rate actors, another married couple who have spent years literally trying to murder each other and an overly competitive homosexual duo.
The second half of the play occurs across the lake at another retreat, Ravenswood, operated by a doctor with a very different philosophy. The alarmingly smiley Dr. Toynbee believes that in order to attain perfection his variously demented patients should simply shoot up every day with giant doses of his special narcotic serum. Sure, the serum transforms them into useless, babbling imbeciles, but at least in their borderline comatose state they can't do anything unpleasant anymore. Dr. Toynbee's patients include an alcoholic, a guy who likes to dress up in women's clothes and another fellow who thinks he's Japanese and has a disturbing obsession with erotic sadism. The daily operations at Ravenswood are seen to by nurses Benson and Hedges (heh, heh).
Much of this is really hilarious, although the play drags on a bit too long. I also wish McNally had created some more structural links between the two halves. One of the funniest recurring bits in the first half is when John Hardman as Dr. Pepper goes into convulsions every time his competitor across the lake is mentioned.
The performances, at least, are mostly up to par. I especially liked Georgette Reeves as the bitchy actress April Jones. Reeves also did a nice job in the second half of the play in the role of the ditzy, naïve Nurse Hedges. Shangreaux Lagrave and John Bauer took funny turns as bickering gay boys in the first half. Bauer took the role of the freaky gibberish-spewing Dr. Toynbee to impressive heights in the second half. Ray Orley was especially funny as the recovering nitpicker Harry Scupp in the Ravenswood half.
All in all, this is an enjoyable production, and director Epstein did a fine job with the material. For my tastes, Bad Habits is too cynical and its characters too superficial to make for truly engrossing theater, but I laughed out loud through several segments and a good laugh ain't chopped liver.
Bad Habits, a play by Terrence McNally directed by Marty Epstein, runs through Sept. 3 at the Vortex Theatre (2004 1/2 Central SE). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. $10 general, $8 students/seniors. Sundays at 6 p.m. $8. 247-8600.
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