The China Syndrome

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goodman extreme happinessIn the May 2014 issue of Travel and Leisure magazine, one of my favorite writers Gary Shteyngart writes an astringent yet admiring profile of Beijing and says “This is where it’s at. Beijing, China’s political capital, is where the future will be partly decided and packaged and presented to large swaths of the globe. In last Sunday’s premiere of his critically-acclaimed CNN TV show Parts Unknown, my other favorite writer/raconteur Anthony Bourdain says ironically yet admiringly of Shanghai “What is the future? I don’t know. But to a very great extent, it is surely being determined here. Is there a plan? Probably not. Only appetites.” Many of us who care about the world believe that the 21st century is the “Asian century” with China as its economic linchpin. So a play like Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness, now receiving a world premiere production at the Goodman Theater before it transfers off-Broadway to the Manhattan Theater Club in February 2015, depicting stories of both urbanites and rural workers driving China’s economic growth, is timely, vital, intriguing. Unfortunately, Cowhig’s play, despite telling fresh narratives that we’ve not seen recently on Chicago stages, is marred by meandering plot threads that dead end in the ether and a perplexing tone that for most of the two hours border on a Sarah Silverman-meets-The Hangover in Asia mélange of toilet humor, slapstick, and broad characterizations. Great concept, flawed execution.

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Ain’t Amour

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chicago shakes king learI’m back! It was a hectic summer where I was literally everywhere, from San Diego to Sao Paulo, from New York City to San Francisco.  But I’m staying put in Chicago for the next several weeks since the fall arts and culture season has begun with its usual loud, notable bang (and for the nth year I’ve thought about finally hiring that cute, virile, foot-massaging male assistant to manage my calendar of show openings and cultural events). All of the major houses have opened their first plays for the season and in the past couple of weeks I was able to catch Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new, Sinatra-inspired take on King Lear and Victory Garden Theater’s Chicago premiere of newly-minted MacArthur Genius grantee Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. Intriguingly and coincidentally both shows revolve around the themes of age, aging, and the elderly, and both feature some notable performances from Chicago’s veteran theater actors. Unfortunately both also fall short in treating these important, less-portrayed topics with the power, poignancy, and relatability that they deserve.

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