The most immediately striking aspect of author David Simpatico's writing is the sense that he clearly listens to people and can perceptively relate extreme feelings without condescension. Here, he gets into the souls of people who are so close to an emotional precipice that it's forcing them to stare into and dissect the very meaning of their existence.
One woman who's, as she put it, "chewed her cud in the pastures of pain," is a motivational speaker/female bodybuilder who tells of her trek back from her 287-pound state of spiritual desolation. While broadly comic in its tone, it also genuinely touches one with its unpretentious look into someone with real gumption.
Another character is a nebbishy fellow who gets caught in a moment where he finds that the woman on whom he's been peeping with binoculars is peeping back at him and inviting him to join her in some long-distance safe sex. Far from being shallowly prurient, the piece is an examination of one person's liberation from an agonizing loneliness, of his finding a way to another person. The role benefited from some very intelligent acting by Bob Yarnall, who came across as a sort of Jason Alexander but with greater depth.
The audience also shares the internal thoughts of a stripper as she muses on her fate, possible career paths, growing hatreds, and shifting values as she grinds and flashes. This device is not really new in form, but this time nothing was held back. Her contempt for the men in the audience is barked right at them in an undiluted assault. Ann Lilly played the part with a real verve. Her faux-seductive body movements and facial expressions struck a fascinating contrast with the harshness of her vocal delivery.
One monologue was segmented into shorter parts between the other characters' speeches. As such, it took on the feel of a near suicide. This was an imaginative way of framing the evening and deserves kudos to Simpatico or director Roger Mrazek, whoever conceived it.
The sole questionable part of the show involved a gay Lothario and his quest for the perfect husband. Although just as well-written as the other segments (and even more hilarious), it simply didn't seem on the same level of dramatic life as the crises faced by the people the audience had met before it. Although it must be acknowledged that William Flatley's reading of it was much more successful at finding flashes of emotional desperation than in the show's previous incarnation last year at the West Bank Cafe.
The production's visual sophistication was greatly enhanced by Matt Berman's customary skill as a lighting designer and by Anthony Costa's eccentric set design. Shelly Norton's costumes were aptly chosen, from the stripper's tacky minimalist couture to the gay man's too-too-chic clubwear.
The Secret of Life offered some good, hearty laughs to go along with a lot of fine dramatic writing (and a couple essential truths thrown in).
Also featuring: Joanne Genelle, Susan Kurowski, and Jane Young. Sound design: Raymond D. Schilke; stage manager: Kaddy Feast.
Copyright 1997 John Michael Koroly
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