Chicago theater audiences are a lucky bunch. With the abundance of world premieres in this city, we are almost always able to say, “Yep, I saw that first.” The Chicago Tribune just reported that Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced, which premiered in a much-admired Chicago production in 2012, will bow on Broadway this fall directed by its Chicago director, Kimberly Senior. One of the things to remember though about seeing world premieres almost on a weekly basis is that some of them are going to be very, very good, and many of them will, to put it lightly, need further revisions. Here are my thoughts on two world premiere productions currently playing in Chicago.
Exit Strategy (Jackalope Theatre Company) – What a difference a few months make. In my April 2014 post on its ambitious, impressive, but imperfect The Killing of Michael X, I said Jackalope “has joined the top of my list of theater companies to watch in Chicago.” With its current acclaimed, sold-out world premiere of Ike Holter’s blistering, shattering Exit Strategy about the year leading up to the closure of a Chicago public school, Jackalope rests unchallenged as number 1 on that list. Exit Strategy is electrifying, energizing theater-making. Holter’s pugilistic yet clear-eyed writing tackles the complicated themes of Chicago’s fraught, much-debated school closings mostly in economically-depressed areas: the gentrification of neighborhoods, the displacement of students, the quality (or lack of) public education, the resources and support (or lack of) education in this city, heck in this country, in general, the racial and economic undertones of these school closings. But he wisely paints these not through big, academic debates, but through the pungent and all-so-real conversations, doubts, and reflections of a group of teachers and one very committed student as they struggle to draw city attention to their school and hope to keep it open. The excitement of watching Exit Strategy is in not knowing very much as the story unfolds, so I’ll stop here. But Holter’s mature, ferocious writing (much tighter and nuanced than the acclaimed Hit the Wall which I also loved) is very impressive. Sure I could have done with more fleshed-out characterizations for some of the teachers, and I’m not a big fan of having imaginary conversations with long-gone characters as a plot device to examine motivations and consciences, but both are minor quibbles.
Gus Menary’s kinetic direction and the stunningly inhabited ensemble performances are as jaw-dropping as Holter’s writing. Menary moves scenes along at an appropriately fast pace but also capably draws out the resonant emotional moments (the opening scene between a teacher and the associate principal which goes through a rollercoaster of emotions from confrontation to reflection is breathtaking). The cast is terrific, probably the best ensemble cast right now on Chicago stages (both Equity and storefront). As the young, unnerved assistant principal Ricky who at the beginning of the play seems to be over his head but ends up as passionate leader of the crew trying to save the school, Patrick Whalen is brilliant. Whalen makes Ricky’s journey from tentative, spineless school administrator looking for a call center job after the school closes to committed activist very believable. Danny Martinez, Lucy Sandy, Barbara Figgins, Paloma Nozicka (whose stand-out character is both a foul-mouthed hoot and a melancholy, world-weary survivor of school closings) as the teachers and Jerry Mackinnon as the student all create vivid lively, realistic portraits. But it is HB Ward, whom I’ve seen and admired in many Chicago storefront theater productions, who is unforgettable. His Arnold is a veteran teacher whose cynicism and exhaustion reflect the hostile, almost-unbearable conditions of teaching in urban areas full of crime, poverty, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderfully lived-in performance in which Ward’s every stoop, shuffle, eye-roll, and raspy retort persuasively and painfully paint for the audience a life of idealism shattered. Ward’s performance alone is worth every cent of the price of admission, and then some. The sold-out Exit Strategy runs until June 29 at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway.
Ask Aunt Susan (Goodman Theatre) – Thirty minutes into the excruciating Ask Aunt Susan, Seth Bockley’s world premiere adaptation of Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts about a guy who writes an advice column under a female pseudonym, now updated for the age of Yelp, Google stats, and trendy ramen-eaters, I thought “you know I would be better off having a pedicure now than staying through the rest of this”. Unfortunately, at 80 minutes that feels like 5 hours of Shark Week videos, Ask Aunt Susan doesn’t have an intermission to allow beaten-down audience members to escape. Bockley, who is one of Chicago theater’s rising hyphenate directors-writers, has written one huge disappointing goose egg of a play. It focuses on an unnamed twenty-something guy (played by a really attractive and immensely watchable Alex Stage who unfortunately is saddled with a poorly-written and unbelievable character) who used to write fake Yelp restaurant reviews, but is asked by his former boss to write an online advice column instead. His online persona, warm, kindly, wise Aunt Susan, taps into the national zeitgeist of recession misery and overnight the website becomes a viral hit. As a result, “the guy” builds an enviable crowd-sourcing network of Aunt Susan advice-givers, generates huge returns for his investors (his sleazy former boss and his brittle, worldly wife), and has a nervous breakdown. My main issue with the play is that no one really gets a true, complete, specific idea of what Aunt Susan is selling and why she is such a hit – is it old-time advice giving similar to West’s novel (not sure how you can effectively monetize that in our cynical, entitled, can-do age)? Is it some form of updated self-help in the vein of Dr. Phil or “The Secret”? Is it a digital advice pyramid scheme that in some way encourages advice-seekers to bring in other advice-seekers into the Aunt Susan network? Is it all of these? Because this is not clear the nervous breakdown that the guy goes through (in the original West novel the lead character gets so involved and invested in the loneliness and suffering of his readers that he snaps) is confounding. Why? What drives him to submerge himself into the Aunt Susan ethos? If it’s money, empathy, or just good old-fashioned Gen XY drive, well, none of these are supported by the script.
Because the central premise is poorly-conceived, everything else in the play falls apart. Why does the guy jump into bed with his boss’ wife (a weary Jennie Moreau) without any clear motivation from either of them? What is the reason for having different waitress characters all played by the same actor (a likable, hard-working Robyn Scott)? How did his innocent, kooky, hippie girlfriend (a cryptic Meghan Reardon) on which he based his Aunt Susan character on turn out to be a worldly, husband-stealing wench? Henry Wishcamper’s direction is meandering (unclear transitions, lethargic pacing), seemingly as mystified with the piece as the audience is. Ask Aunt Susan is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. until June 22. Tickets are available.