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Looking for Love in the Windy City: Joey Jalalian (from left), Jeromy Carssow and Tom Ammon deduce some truths about the famous seducer Don Juan in City Lights' newest production.

Wordplay

'Don Juan in Chicago' confronts the great seducer with modern sexual mores

By Michael J. Vaughn

"I CAN'T GO to the theater anymore without Elvis showin' up!" This from a friend of mine in the late '90s, when the latest wave of iconography was hitting its peak. Faced with a paucity of fresh ideas and the aging of postmodernism, playwrights were throwing Deans, Monroes and Sinatras into their works like arugula into a salad. There were some excellent results (e.g., Picasso at the Lapine Agile, by Steve Martin), but come the millennium, the trick was wearing thin. And, of course, the tossing doesn't work if the tosser has no talent.

Witness David Ives of Don Juan in Chicago, the season opener for City Lights Theater. Ives takes a cute idea and drives it quickly into the ground with pedestrian sex humor and torturously clever dialogue. The twist (interesting enough) is that Don Juan (Jeromy Carssow) is actually a geeky, virgin philosopher, one who wants more than the usual life span to explore the unanswered questions. So he conjures the devil (Tom Ammon), who offers him a deal: immortality, as long as the Don seduces a new woman each day. The premise is a loser right out of the blocks, because it takes the single most intriguing aspect of the Don Juan legend--insatiable, power-driven lust--and reduces it to a merit-pay program.

And then comes the rhyming. Ives decides to paint an aura of enchantment over his seduction scenes by having the players talk in verse. Sexual satire is serious business, and this just plain kills it. We're too busy getting ready for that next bit of Dr. Seuss wordplay (including strictly non-Seussian cheats like "mantra" and "Cleopatra") to even hear what the characters are saying. Add a series of ever-worsening puns, and it's clear we're only here to witness the playwright's great cleverness.

Things improve once we get to Chicago, circa 2000, but even in the present-day setting, Ives is working on a flawed notion. He's clearly shooting for "fish-out-of-water" humor, but the Don has had the same everyday chance as the rest of us to adapt to butt plugs, yeast infections and transsexualism. The only character to come through is the Don's unwilling servant, Leporello, who thinks all of this carrying on is just as idiotic as we do. This has a lot to do with Brian Stevens, who taps into a wacky Richard Lewis energy, delivering even the worst of puns ("The world is your cloister!") with aplomb.

The rest of the cast members do a pretty decent job with what they've got. Carssow reflects Don Juan's basic schlub-ness and, 400 years later, the daunting jadedness of a four-century bed-treadmill. Joey Jalalian's Dona Elvira is the kind of first love that any man would fall for, delivering a packet of charm and faith to a play that really needs it. John Romano and Lauren Minkel add some spice as a screw-around Windy City guy and his extremely experienced five-week girlfriend. The only really faulty performance is delivered by Ammon, who doesn't seem to have any good idea how to play his devil (perhaps it's all the smoke).

But then, Ives doesn't have any good idea how to portray Mephistopheles, either, and ends up basically castrating him. The play's conclusion is a namby-pamby "devil ex machina" where everything's right with the world and "all you need is love." Yeah, right. So that's it. It's over. Let the playwrights of the 21st century be warned. Do your work, make up your own damn characters--and for God's sake, leave Johnny Cash the hell alone!


Don Juan in Chicago, a City Lights production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through Oct. 18 at City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $18-$22. (408.295.4200)


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From the October 2-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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