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Pulp: a magazine or book printed on cheap paper and often dealing with sensational material.

I found that definition in my Webster's Dictionary. The label "pulp fiction" has forever been corrupted by Quentin Tarantino's terminally hip, 1994 movie of that title. But the original pulp authors--men like James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Mickey Spillane--didn't have characters living in mansions and snorting heroin. Their men and women were survivors of the seedy side of life, just trying to get rich, get laid, and get by.

Robert Lesser, playwright and collector extraordinaire, would seem like a good person to rejuvenate the genre. The press release for Chicago Pulp describes him as "a veritable expert on all things pulp and noir," and that's not mere boasting; his collection of pulp-related items was profiled in November in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times and is currently on display at The Brooklyn Museum of Art. Lesser is clearly an avid and knowledgeable fan of the genre. However, his obsession has not translated into successful playwriting.

Chicago Pulp is an evening of two related one-acts by Lesser. The second play, Death is: As the Last Song You Sing, is far superior to the first, Philloctoties II [sic]. Death is concerns the impending demise of the matriarch of a suffocatingly close Irish family. Although mother is just moments from expiring, her family members refuse to pay their last respects, as they dread the deathbed promises she will extract from them. ("She's in her greatest moment of strength," cautions her son Talker Moran, the talented Jacob D. Thomas). The mother's constant support and smothering love have reduced her sons and husband to hopelessly lost, codependent souls. Her daughter Teresa is the only family member who found a way to escape, even if her life is a collection of sordid clichés (abortion, adultery, etc.)

Now, Teresa (Lesley McBurney, in the night's most impressive performance) hesitates to face her mother for fear of what she will demand: Teresa's promise to move back home and claim her post as the head of the dysfunctional household. The themes of the play are familiar: the choking nature of the ties that bind, the restrictive status of women in the 1950s, the fact that some boys never become men because of overbearing mothers, and so on. Although the piece is engrossing and well staged, it never really rises above the level of melodrama.

The opening play, Philloctoties II, is supposedly based in Greek mythology. Philoctetes (as it is spelled in my Webster's) was a Greek archer and friend to Hercules who used Hercules' bow to slay Paris at Troy. I have to admit, I am not sure how this myth relates to the play I saw. Phil Moran (uncle to Teresa from Death is:), by reputation the best detective in Chicago, is hired by the Mafia to locate $15 million that was stolen from the mob's very own bank. But Phil is not just a master detective, he's also a master thief. His greed and lust are ultimately his--and his family's--undoing.

Philloctoties II takes place 10 years earlier than its companion piece; a younger Teresa turns up here as a rambunctious, troubled teen. This play is certainly closer to the definition of pulp than Death is: Al Capone, dirty money, Chicago's seedy South side, attempted rape, sexual role playing, suicide, and bloody murder all figure in the plot. The piece is well directed by Exiene Lofgren, and the actors try hard. But, in the end, the "sensational" material does not add up to a coherent, interesting play.

Chicago Pulp is presented by Goeghetter Productions Inc. The company clearly has talent and resources; the sets are inventive, the actors game. Next time, I would suggest that the work of a stronger playwright be showcased.

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