The Softer Image

Avery Bly, the central character in Wendy MacLeod‘s play Sin, is one of those people to whose vertiginous standards you can never quite measure up. Not in this incarnation, anyway. Working as the traffic reporter for a San Francisco radio station, she literally hovers high above the rest of us, a morally superevolved being who looks down from her helicopter and judges the human gridlock below. From such heights, Avery explains in her opening monologue, she can imagine the city as a nice place populated by caring people living in happy houses. It’s only when she sets foot on earth that she‘s confronted by an opposite reality, one that includes her estranged alcoholic husband, a brother dying of AIDS, a junk-food-eating roommate and an egotistical real estate pirate.

Add to these a testosterone-hemorrhaging work environment and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and you end up with a medieval Everyman play dressed as a modern journey of self-discovery, a la encounters with the seven deadly sins. Well, sort of, for it’s also immediately apparent that Avery, despite her professed shortcomings, is another variation on a much more recent stage convention, the Put-Upon American -- that recurring hero of playwrights and monologists, one whose job it is to absorb or deflect the neuroses of colleagues and loved ones. Like Avery, the Put-Upon American cops to a few minor personality downticks, but only so as to appear a more tran-scendent person than those around her. This means MacLeod‘s play has less in common with Everyman’s traditional search through the debris of the temporal world than it does with Everyyuppie‘s psychological commute from divorce to reconciliation.

This partly explains why the play’s examination of sin takes a back seat to showcase acting in Barbara Cameron‘s production at the Hudson Avenue Theater, to the extent that we have continually to scan our programs to connect this character with that sin. Lust, which materializes as a bar-cruising shark (Peter Janosi) locked in on Avery (Rose of Sharon Stoneall), is lamentably shortchanged here, and swiftly yields to Sloth -- Avery’s boozing husband, Michael (Shawn McGorrian), a doctor who has just lost his job and seems incapable of making that call to A.A. From there it‘s on to a Japanese restaurant for a blind date with Greed, a cutthroat businessman (Billy Jack Carter) who argues that “equal pay for equal work” should translate into women getting paid less than men. After this testy encounter, Avery settles in for a rendezvous with Gluttony -- roommate Helen (Anity M. Janow), who, in Avery’s opinion, spends too much time eating and watching TV, and not enough tidying up and dressing for success.

The next day -- the day of the Apocalypse -- Avery has to endure the spiteful, jealous ravings of her middle-aged helicopter pilot, Fred (Gary Rubenstein), whose envy-ous detour to spy on his boss‘s Oakland Hills manse prevents Avery from reporting a big accident on the Bay Bridge. For this she will next bear the wrath of her insecure boss, Jason (Frank Bond). But if Avery thinks she can find respite in the company of her HIV-positive brother, Gerard (Jeff Garvin), she can forget it. By refusing to tell Pride -- uh, Gerard -- that he looks great, Avery provokes an argument over her inflexible moral code that ends with him collapsing in her arms as the earthquake hits.

Just as Avery’s troubles begin when her opening monologue ends, so do those of this West Coast premiere (Sin first opened in 1994, at Chicago‘s Goodman Theater). Cameron’s production tends to soften Avery, suggesting that her sole problem is her native candor, and not an insistence on claiming the moral high ground at every turn. In fact, her admonitions about recycling (Xerox on both sides of the page!) make complete sense, and at worst cast her as a kind of Greenpeace Martha Stewart.

More serious, perhaps, Cameron‘s underrehearsed cast is encouraged to mistake comedy for satire, and apoplexy for apocalypse, with the seven sins triggering each scene like audience suggestions in an improv-class exercise. Stoneall, in particular, needs to show some emotion -- if only in response to the dialogue directed her way -- to stop Avery from becoming hopelessly cold and unlikable. It’s one thing to have a character be a know-it-all; it‘s worse to have her seem completely unanchored to the play’s dialogue.

As the soulless real estate mogul who‘s making a fortune buying up properties suddenly devalued thanks to the AIDS deaths of their owners, Carter is the cast’s one true delight. He also seems to be the one character to actually grow exponentially worse, in a post-quake scene in which he offers to let Avery, who‘s struggling to find transportation to Michael’s Marina District home, steal his car so he can collect on the insurance. Garvin, as Avery‘s gay brother, likewise has a nice turn, although -- how to put this sensitively? -- I didn’t at first get the impression he was dying of anything, much less AIDS. Finally, Janow‘s Gluttony has everyone doing double takes, since, as a person who’s obviously not overweight, she falls under the dubious rubric “nontraditional casting.” (Camryn Manheim essayed the role off-Broadway in 1995.) Perhaps it is set designer Stephen Pellrand‘s red-lit, skyline-silhouetted rear wall that comes closest to realizing the play’s fablelike tone of a world in limbo, of a country poised on the brink of eternal twilight. Which, unfortunately, is just another way of saying Cameron‘s staging relegates the play’s ideas to the background.

MacLeod first became widely known for her perky farce The House of Yes, a self-styled “suburban Jacobean tragedy” that blended incest and an obsession with John F. Kennedy‘s assassination. (It received its commercial premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in 1990, before moving to L.A.‘s Las Palmas.) That Yes’ heady humor was no fluke was proved by MacLeod‘s wickedly humorous and intelligent stage debate about abortion, The Water Children (seen here at the Matrix in 1998, after premiering in New York the year before). Sin is the least satisfying MacLeod work I’ve seen, although I missed Apocalyptic Butterflies when it came to the Zephyr just after The House of Yes‘ arrival.

Sin’s lack of Hogarthian sweep may ultimately be less a problem of dramaturgy than of paradigmatic shifts in morality. What Europe in the Middle Ages regarded as deadly sins, we merely consider the behavioral brickwork of everyday life; when Avery‘s brother acts flighty and expresses concerns for his appearance, we shrug, “Isn’t he just being a gay stage character?” It‘s really a bit of a stretch to label Michael’s alcoholism “sloth,” just as it is to call Gerard‘s garden-variety vanity “pride.” And while this particular “sin” may indeed precede a fall, and was considered a high crime in, say, the time of Ethelred the Unready, today pride barely rates a fix-it ticket.

In the same vein, the “wrath” displayed by Jason comes off more as the outburst of someone who’s skipped his Prozac this week than genuine anger, and Fred‘s pouty outburst over being passed over for promotion doesn’t appear to be as grounded in material “envy” as it is in simple frustration. I could go on, but it would only be to suggest, as MacLeod‘s play unwittingly does, that yesterday’s sins are today‘s vaguely bad manners.


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