Puttin' on the Schvitz

Aug 7, 2002 at 12:00 am

Perhaps only in fair, historically flabbergasted Detroit could the end of one cultural institution be marked with a one-act play celebrating the romantic notion of another. Case in point is playwright Kristine Dickson’s The Schvitz, now playing at Motor Lounge, Hamtramck’s one-time “king of clubs.”

Dickson’s staged Schvitz has about as much to do with the fabled, predominately Jewish bathhouse on Oakland Avenue as overstated visions of nitrous balloon-huffing, E-gobbling “ravers” have to do with abandoned buildings on the East Side. That’s not to say that the two aren’t interrelated. Rather, they both conjure sordid images at their mere mention. In that context, the choice of venue for the play is appropriate. After all, Motor Detroit confirmed the rumors of its failing health when owner Dan Sordyl recently announced the club will close after six years of bringing beautiful people and beer-guzzling masses together with Detroit’s techno throb. It’s been the standard-bearer for Detroit high life since its doors first opened. Whether tackling the Sisyphean task of creating the myth of glamour in a working-class, immigrant enclave of post-industrial Detroit or battling rumors and real allegations of sex, drugs and techno shenanigans, Motor has created a mystique of its own. Granted, it doesn’t have the historical sheen of the Schvitz’s association with the notorious and brutal Purple Gang or the whispers of swinger action. But it’s been only six years; cut ’em some slack.

Dickson’s vision of the Schvitz is a Dionysian playground where repressed suburbanites go to, unwittingly or not, confront their hang-ups. Over the course of the one-act play’s short 40 minutes, the principals start confronting hang-ups in short order, mostly in loud, broad strokes. Playgoers are greeted by a toga-clad host, and players are clad solely in Roman garb. The Schvitz Bathhouse isn’t a precise re-creation of the Purple Gang’s pleasure hideout; it’s merely the place where the conversation starts. Dickson’s The Schvitz is conjured with a set of pleather couches, a couple of cabaret tables, and big-screen projections of classic and Greek imagery (the Parthenon, Michelangelo’s “David,” statues of Athena) and textual cues (such as the Schvitz’s rules for the swingers).

The story of The Schvitz follows two apparently upper-middle-class couples who are troubled with the typical baggage one might expect: lack of spark, married to the job, cheating with the neighbor, the frat boy who never grew up — you know the deal. The story goes, loosely, like this: Couple A, Chalomar (Dallas Henry) and Lee (Jacquie Floyd) are engaged. Chalomar is a workaholic and has brought Lee to the Schvitz to explore their fantasy life. Lee isn’t too keen on the idea, but tags along anyway. Couple B, Bob (Jeff Priskorn) and Joan (Karri Brantley), are in the sort of marital rut around which Alan Alda films are built — infidelity breeding discontent breeding animosity. Bob’s the aforementioned frat boy who never outgrew the Delta house. So into the fictional Schvitz these couples plunge, ostensibly to jar their relationships back into action. While in the sauna room, they meet up with Andrew (Daniel Pesta) — a stoner of the ambiguously gay variety — who serves up a running commentary on cultural mores. Then there’s Flora (Shannon Lee, who makes the play’s most ostentatious entrance), a Schvitz employee who provides the “down-to-earth” female perspective on the lustful foibles of the men whom she’s now charged with entertaining.

This assemblage of character types argues, snorts, fucks, inhales, argues some more, jokes and prods one another whilst schvitzing. Director Troy Richard keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace and keeps the distractions to a minimum. DJ-producer Keith Kemp, a regular Motor performer, provides a sonic backdrop that rolls from ambient sauna hiss to techno throb depending on the action. Whether through its sheer volume or its composition and timing, Kemp’s sound track often acts as an unseen character. (Unfortunately, it also occasionally forces the actors to shout too many of their lines, breaking the necessary intimacy.)

In the end, it’s a glimpse, a one-act glimpse into the idea of a forbidden underground culture (albeit a culture populated by the most common suburban character archetypes). Somehow, that it is happening at Motor — where so many suburbanites and techno tourists trekked to get a glimpse of electronic music’s underground culture — it seems utterly appropriate.

The final two performances of The Schvitz will be held at Motor Lounge (3515 Caniff, Hamtramck; 313-369-0090) Friday, Aug. 9 and Saturday, Aug. 10 at 9 p.m.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected]