Fresh Air, Part Two – Disgraced

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This is the second of a two-part blog post.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about The Inconvenience’s Hit the Wall.  The other noteworthy new work I saw in the early weeks of 2012 was American Theater Company’s world premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which began in late January but which has mercifully been extended into early March. Disgraced is a little bit more polished, somewhat more thoughtfully structured, and comes off more re-written (which is a good thing to say about a play in this case) than Hit the Wall, but it isn’t any less powerful, and arguably, is probably more topical and resonant.  The central character is a first-generation Pakistani-American, Amir (an extraordinary Usman Ally), who has thoroughly embraced the American Dream: the fast-track in his corporate law firm, an interior-decorated Manhattan apartment, a non-Pakistani artist-wife (a good Lee Stark in an underwritten role), a worldview that’s skeptical, challenging, and to a certain extent, shunning of his Muslim background and upbringing.  It’s a truly provocative piece of theater- Akhtar palpably and sometimes brutally tackles large-scale themes around cultural identity and assimilation. 

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Fresh Air, Part One – Hit the Wall

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This is the first of a two-part blog post.

While some theaters in the city are still going on their merry way with productions of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and, inexplicably, hoary chestnuts that should be put to rest already in heavily-padlocked vaults, the 2012 winter theater season in Chicago has already seen the emergence of several strong, new playwriting voices who feel like a comforting and bracing breath of fresh air. At Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, the laudable annual showcase for emerging storefront theater companies, The Inconvenience is currently mounting Ike Holter’s fearless, vivid, attention-grabbing world premiere of Hit the Wall, about those who lived through the watershed event of contemporary GLBT history, the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969. A little further north, the American Theater Company also has another terrific, provocative world premiere in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, tackling themes around assimilation and cultural identity among Muslim-Americans.  Both Hit the Wall and Disgraced have jawdropping, breathtakingly-spectacular central performances; both also, despite many, many good qualities, in my humble opinion, require some more work in the playwriting department.  These two remarkable plays still prove though that Chicago is quite the formidable incubator of new work; and if they’re an indication of how great theater will be in 2012, then all of us avid theatergoers will be quite the happy campers (Mayan Calendar Doomsday prediction be damned!).

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Family Ties

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I must admit I tend to gravitate towards the artsy, the cutting (sometimes even bleeding)-edge, the shocking and aweing, the highly theatrical when it comes to plays that I like to see.  For those of you who read this blog regularly, you know I’ve written about many of them too over the years.  But ultimately theater for me is about great storytelling, and I’ve been surprised that two of the plays I’ve liked the most this winter theater season are about the extraordinarily fraught emotional bonds between ordinary families.  Call me jaded, but every time I see the words “family drama” in the description of a play (and the play isn’t entitled August:  Osage County), I scoff, roll my eyes, lower my bar, and expect something straight out of Lifetime TV.  But Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, a world premiere production at the American Theatre Company about the lives and loves of three generations in a suburban family played out in the restaurant they frequent over the years, and Caitlin Montaye Parrish’s A Twist of Water,  in another world premiere by Route 66 Theatre Company, about the fragile relationship between a gay dad and his adopted daughter after the death in the family, are intricate, emotionally resonant, flawlessly written chamber pieces, getting the massive audience attention (and in A Twist of Water’s case, including Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s) both richly deserve.

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Ten Plays to Watch in Chicago this Fall

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The biggest laugh I had over the weekend (more so than the bellyaching guffaws I tried hard to suppress while watching pseudo-hipsters pretend to look impressed by some atrocious art during the West Loop gallery openings last Friday, but that’s a topic for another blog post) was over New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood’s almost sheepish admission – in print, for everyone to read -that New York theater, specifically Broadway, should be considered the east side of Chicago, given the number of Chicago-originating productions and artists currently on stage in New York.  Thank you, Mr. Isherwood, but our fair city already has an east side, so we don’t really need to annex New York City.  It was still pretty hilarious, though, to finally see the snobbish, self-promoting, out-of-touch Times theater section admit what many of us passionate theater aficionados have known for a while now – that the vital center of American theater has already migrated from the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders.  So while one-step-behind New Yorkers will be drooling over chi-town exports Superior Donuts, A Steady Rain, and David Cromer (making his Broadway directing debut with revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, running in repertory) this fall, theater-forward Chicago audiences will be immersing ourselves in some of the best theater this side of the Atlantic.  I’ve compiled below my annual list of the ten must-see theatrical events in Chicago this fall, most of them world premieres, never been seen anywhere; hopefully I’ll bump into many of you in some of them.  You never know, but that obscure, low-key, storefront production you paid twenty bucks for may be next year’s frenzy-inducing hot ticket in New York (exhibit A:  A Steady Rain). 

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The Un-Breakfast Club

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speech-and-debate-at-atc.jpgI have never been a fan of high school-themed plays and movies since I find many of them to be shallow and corny, very 80s Breakfast Club (and I do find it remarkably difficult to remember my own high school life since it took place so many eons ago way before the toilet plunger was even invented…or so it seems).  Yes, I am one of the, oh I don’t know, three people in Chicago, who found the House Theater’s acclaimed and multi-awarded drama The Sparrow, boring, derivative, and unbelievably mushy.  So it’s sort of ironic for me to be coming out and saying that the freshest, most original, most deserving of repeated viewings and an extended engagement among all the shows currently onstage right now in the city is a play about high school students.  Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate, fresh from its much-raved about and much-extended off-Broadway run at the Roundabout Theatre Underground series, is being given a fantastic, over-the-top, belly-achingly funny production at the revitalized American Theatre Company (ATC) by new Artistic Director PJ Paparelli (just to duly note, this is the first production outside of  New York for the play).  Everyone who loves great, insightful, witty new plays should put on their flipflops pronto and rush over to the corner of Lincoln and Byron- there’s so much more terrific, focused, memorable writing in Speech and Debate than in many of Sarah Ruhl’s recent plays (more on that in another blog post).

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