Prop Thtr

No sense in speculating why, but it seems as if this year’s theatrical trend in Chicago is the dramatization of novels, such as the pointless Little Caesar, the unbearable Macondo (based on One Hundred Years of Solitude), and the dubious The Grapes Of Wrath. Generally it’s been an unsuccessful trend. Maybe that’s because the scope of a novel is often too big to cram into a play–although that didn’t stop Frank Galati, who directed The Grapes of Wrath, from putting a truck and a river onstage. As if it were somehow an art to put these things indoors. No, if there’s an art to adapting novels to the stage, it has to be one that doesn’t compete so poorly with the medium of film.

The development of character and the spoken language–these, I think, are areas where theater can not only compete but surpass both novels and films. Theater is the person and the voice. So you’d think that a play entitled The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (adapted from the novel by William Burroughs) might capitalize on these strengths. It doesn’t.

Scott Vehill, who both adapted the novel and directed this show, is like the kid who couldn’t get his fist out of the jelly-bean jar. Vehill tries to capture the entire span of Dutch Schultz’s criminal life in no less than three dozen scenes. That’s a lot of scenes for a show only slightly over an hour long. It averages out at less than two minutes per scene, so you can imagine how both character development and sustained dialogue are sacrificed. And there are so many characters that some actors play two, three, or even four roles. After a while I didn’t know who was playing what or who killed whom and why. Nor is any sense of continuity established by the music bridges, voice-overs, and completely gratuitous film segments. Epic theater it’s not. As for getting that novel on the stage? The jar is broken, the jelly beans are squished into an unsightly blob, and the flavor of the whole is a mess.

By the end I still didn’t know any more about Dutch Schultz than I had when I walked into the theater, except that he was Jewish and his real name was Arthur Flegenheimer. Herb Metzler portrays Schultz as a guy in a vintage suit who stands around looking tough and demanding things. Yet even that’s contrived. It isn’t hard to picture a single unarmed teenager from Cabrini-Green walking into the theater and beating this Dutch Schultz senseless. And I don’t think the supporting cast, with all their cap guns, would put up much of a defense.

There are a lot of cap guns in The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. Some fire, and some don’t. Point-blank assassinations are performed without caps, in deference to the actor taking the fall. And silliest of all is the tommy gun, with its shots played over a loudspeaker while the actor shakes the gun and warily anticipates the end of the sound-effects tape. Meanwhile the body count rises so fast that I lost tally. Legs Somebody (Diamond, maybe?), Lucky Luciano, Vincent Coll (whoever he was), a little girl (caught in the cross fire), and assorted underworld characters are gunned down with little drama and less effect. What did they die for? Who knows? Who cares?

But if sitting in a dark room and watching people die, however ludicrously, isn’t your thing, there’s still the simulated sex. In abundance. William Burroughs’s taste in sex doesn’t include women, which limits the nature of the sex in this show, but as a few women are cast in male roles, I guess there’s something for everyone. Personally, I find simulated sex boring and humorless as a rule. The only exception here was in the prison scene, where a doggie-style maneuver was performed in a corner of the stage directly in front of a mortified couple in the audience. Yes but, you ask, is it theater?

Well, it may be theater technically, but I refuse to call it art. After everyone’s been screwed, blown, and blown away–countless times, yet never once convincingly–what do we know? I don’t even know what Dutch Schultz’s last words were. Something about a hotel and a dog biscuit. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. All I want is for Dutch SchuItz to lie down on his gurney bed and not get up any more, because that will signal the end of the play.

When the play eventually does end, it ends where it began, with Schultz lying on a bed wondering if he’s dead. So I guess that makes the play one of those things where the whole of Dutch Schultz’s life passes before his eyes just before he dies. Well, better his eyes than mine. Still uncertain is what Burroughs meant to express by chronicling Schultz’s life. I could see the recurrent themes of sex, drugs, and murder, and also the recurrence of inscrutable images, such as the number 23 and the words “dog biscuit,” but if there was some big picture to be grasped from the novel, I didn’t see it on the stage. It doesn’t translate. What’s left over is a character sketch that is at once comprehensive and superficial, and a production that’s artsy-fartsy but mostly fartsy. Not exactly what Dutch Schultz probably had in mind.