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timeline danny casolaroActually, I’m probably the mad man as I try to fit in as many theater and arts events before all of my waking time (well outside of working and eating) is taken up by the exciting 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival which begins today (read blog posts about it in the next couple of weeks!).  It’s been a busy fall theater season; although I wouldn’t say it’s been an extremely striking or memorable one. Many of the season openers I’ve seen so far have been lackluster, to put it mildly.  The trend continues with two shows I saw over the past couple of weeks, both, surprisingly, with all-male casts: Timeline Theatre’s Danny Casolaro Died For You has an intriguing true-to-life premise but is bogged down by  Dominic Orlando’s perplexing, inconsistent writing; the production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, one of my favorite plays of the ‘naughts, from a new storefront theater called Eclectic Full Contact Theatre is saddled by tepid, unbelievable performances, and by my old age realization that Greenberg’s writing, which I loved back in the play’s Public Theater and Broadway productions, has a discomfiting whiff of condescension.

Playwright Dominic Orlando’s cousin, Danny Casolaro, was a freelance journalist in Virginia who was found dead in a hotel room back in 1991. His death was officially declared by investigators as a suicide but many people believed it was foul play since at the time of his death Casolaro was writing a book about a complex, tangled web of stories that might have involved such monolithic, intimidating parties such as the CIA, various dictatorial regimes around the world, and BCCI, the international bank that was closed down in 1991 after being implicated in financing terrorism. It’s a fraught, combustible topic for a play. As Orlando writes it though, it is also quite a chore to follow. There’s so much exposition in the play that at some point your mind wanders to thoughts of Bears game scores, pedicure appointments, and the recipe for tacos al pastor. There’s a lot of information that the real-life Casolaro was gathering and trying to put together, I get that. But for a theatrical work, I’m always in the camp of leaving things for the audience to think about and drawing conclusions for themselves. What is even more perplexing is the inconsistent tone that Orlando uses throughout the play – some scenes are played broadly, inducing semi-guffaws, such as when Danny meets the government employee tipster Alan Spar, others are coated with the more appropriate tension and menace such as when Danny goes to dinner with the mysteriously connected Robert Nichols at the Four Seasons.  At the end of the play, you come out of the theater with all this information but without a consistent emotional response.

Nick Bowling’s immersive direction in which he stages scenes all over Timeline’s black box theater continues to be impressively fluid with a strong cinematic feel, and he is well-supported by Collette Pollard’s well-curated set design.  The supporting cast, most of them playing multiple roles, is pretty good, with special props to Mark Richard in a believably wacky turn as a computer programmer working for the security agency Wackenhut who knows more than he should.  Kyle Hatley is a dynamic, interesting presence as Danny.  In my opinion, I think he also gives quite the strong, assured portrayal, missing some of the insecurity, desperation, and, yep, fear, that I would think someone in Danny’s situation would be brimming with.

Hatley returns to the Chicago stage after several years as Kansas City Rep’s Associate Artistic Director. The last time I saw him onstage was at Steppenwolf in 2005, in the About Face co-production of Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning Take Me Out, also the last time I think the play was staged with any sort of noteworthiness in the Chicago area.  So I was pretty excited to see the new production from Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, a company I’ve not been aware of before.  I loved Take Me Out and saw not just the off-Broadway, Broadway, and Steppenwolf/About Face versions, but also the San Francisco premiere.  For a gay man in the early ‘naughts, its story of a top baseball player coming out in a sport rife with homophobia was important and resonant, though a wish-fulfillment fantasy that was most likely not going to happen.  And the notorious full-frontal shower scenes of the all-male cast (which included Sex and the City’s David Eigenberg and The Devil Wears Prada’s Daniel Sunjata in the New York productions) were quite the, ahem, eyeful. Well, it’s 2014 and both Michael Sam and Jason Collins have come out in professional sports without any significant derailment.  So Take Me Out as seen today and also with the context of the past couple of years’ large strides around same–sex marriage feels somewhat dated.  Yet Greenberg still has very potent things to same about fame, gay culture, and baseball fans’, well, fanaticism. He still has a wonderfully thought-out (sharp yet kindly) use of baseball obsession as a metaphor for many Americans’ sense of self and identity.  And despite the fact that the central conflict between superstar pitcher Darren Lemming’s admission of his homosexuality and the struggle of his team, especially a disturbed, bigoted player named Shane Mungitt, to accept it is not that big of a deal now, Greenberg’s portrait of Lemming as a fully-formed American male who just happens to be gay is still way ahead of the play’s time.

Unfortunately in this production, director David Belew stages this play without any sizzle (although the infamous shower scenes are intact, even without working onstage showers unlike the previous productions), and the enervated performances of some of the cast do not help. Charlie Rasmann’s brainy narrator Kippy comes off the best since Rasmann is affable yet ironic, able to move the audience through Greenberg’s smart, pointed words. Ruben Adorno is very good-looking, yet his portrayal is too soft and low-key to demonstrate Lemming’s arrogance and sense of invulnerability, qualities that Sunjata’s Tony-nominated performance took pains to emphasize (you need to believe that the baseball community found the character’s coming out to be his Achilles’ heel, so it’s a problem if the performance is mostly heel).  Andrew Pond, as Mason Marzac, Lemming’s accountant, is the stand-in for both the gay community and the baseball fan, and his by-the-book performance fails to engagingly come off as representative of either (and Dennis O’Hare won a Tony for this role).  In the performance I saw, some of the character’s juiciest, funniest lines weren’t landing.  Finally, Chris Rozenboom’s awkward, somewhat unintelligible Mungitt, a performance straight out of Duck Dynasty meets Deliverance, isn’t a worthy adversary for Lemming.  Because Mungitt comes off so churlish and stereotypical, lacking nuance, Greenberg’s surprisingly condescending tone for non-liberal, non-intellectual America comes through, a tone I haven’t noticed in the past productions.  I still like Take Me Out a lot, and I wish to see more thoughtful productions in the future.

Danny Casolaro Died For You is running until December 21 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.  Take Me Out is at the Atheneum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., only until November 2.

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