Mike Ervin's crowd-pleasing History of Bowling premiered in Chicago in 1999 and is often revived there. Perhaps St. Louis audiences will take to this offbeat romantic comedy too. Last weekend's opening-night performance elicited lots of laughter, which is precisely what a romantic comedy is supposed to do. But a minority opinion would suggest that neither the play nor this HotCity GreenHouse production delivers on the evening's promise.
What is promised is an accessible entry into the insular world of the disabled, written by a knowing author who has lived his life with muscular dystrophy.
Chuck is a cynical 32-year-old quadriplegic who has bravely decided to return to college. Lou is a self-absorbed 22-year-old student with a history of epilepsy. They meet in a gym class, where they are assigned by a jock coach (a totally wasted character) to write a joint term paper -- hence the play's title. But let's get real here: Who writes term papers in gym class? And how many colleges compel disabled students to take physical education?
It's not enough that the premise strains credulity; Ervin insists on straining our patience. The script begins with one of those staccato "he said/she said" exchanges (a light up on him, then a light on her, then back to him; you've seen it a dozen times), followed by lots of sarcastic one-liners as Chuck and Lou begin to take stock of how "scarred up, crippled up, dented up" the other really is. Then before you can say Annie Sullivan (Lou's a big fan of The Miracle Worker), these two wary adversaries are necking. Where'd that come from? Did we miss a beat here? By evening's end we've missed a lot of beats. Ervin is so eager to make his points, he doesn't take time to tell his story.
Not that Ervin necessarily knows what story he wants to tell. The History of Bowling is so intent on persuading the viewer that the disabled are free to be you and me, Chuck and Lou's handicaps barely intrude on the plot. Does a disability slow a person down? No way! Consider, for instance, Chuck's roommate Cornelius (charmingly portrayed by Blaine Smith). Corny happens to be blind and deaf, but he has a way with women that would put Rudolph Valentino to shame. All hot-blooded young men, one infers, should be so lucky as to have his disabilities.
Chuck, alas, is no Valentino. He's more Jimmy Durante. Remember that classic scene in the circus movie Jumbo when the Great Schnozzola is caught stealing an elephant? He ignores the behemoth at his side and asks blithely, "What elephant?" If anyone were to ask Chuck how he feels about living life in a wheelchair, doubtless he'd reply, "What wheelchair?" How does this quadriplegic get into and out of his chair? Ignored. How does Lou feel about having to climb over a piece of hardware to kiss Chuck? Ignored. This omnipresent wheelchair should be the play's fifth character; instead it's as invisible as Harvey, the pooka.
If Chris Mannelli brings a welcome gentleness to Chuck that perhaps doesn't exist in the script, he also gives us a protagonist we can care for. But Sarah Cannon's Lou is simply annoying. Cannon em-pha-si-zes e-ve-ry sin-gle syl-la-ble. Even one-syllable words (AS BIG AS THE MOON!) get punched to Palookaville. Is this stilted delivery supposed to be a side effect of Lou's epilepsy, or has Cannon taken up the Delsarte method of declamatory acting?
At one point Lou says of the term paper, "It's not really about bowling at all." Neither, of course, is this play. But what is it about? Is it about how love can surmount physical disability? Is it about how physical handicaps require a defensive kind of egoism? Ervin had an opportunity here to expose viewers to his world; instead he reduces a serious theme to glibness, and a stage comedy that might have been original and insightful winds up being as conventional as last year's canceled sitcom.