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As I was tweeting about this week, there’s so much Chicago theater and so little time.  Which is a great thing.  But I’ve seen several shows this spring season that I really wanted more from.  For me, ultimately, the best theater boils down to the best writing.  If the text is lacking, or fragmented, or seemingly-unfinished, or needing three more drafts to make it watchable, then the play is still unsatisfactory despite the best direction, acting, or design that it may have.  Here’s a roundup of some recent shows I’ve seen.

The Receptionist (Steep Theatre Company) – For most of The Receptionist’s 90 minute running time, the play comes off as a slightly off-kilter yet still innocuous episode of The Office. The office receptionist Beverly and her co-worker Lorraine, two thirds of the “Northeast Office” of an unnamed corporation, gossip about Lorraine’s lovelife, thumb through People magazine, dodge unwanted voicemails, and speculate when their boss Mr. Raymond, who is out doing field calls, will be coming back.  Then the charming Mr. Dart from the Central office of the unnamed corporation arrives looking for Mr. Raymond, and it becomes easily apparent that the work of the Northeast Office is so much more morally ambiguous than the Dundler Mifflin Paper Company. Adam Bock’s writing starts off strong, with the early scenes when Lorraine is complaining to Beverly about seeing her ex in a bar the night before realistically lively.  But the scenes go on and on until Mr. Raymond comes back to the office and the dark nature of the piece becomes more pronounced.  I don’t think Bock fully develops some of the intriguing themes he raises:  why do these seemingly normal people work for this company when they know exactly what its business is?  What kind of ideology binds them together?  Are they in the office by choice or by social intimidation or by a combination of both? How can they read People magazine and collect teacups and still do the work that they do? What is behind Mr. Raymond’s crisis of conscience? And I think it’s because ultimately the characters are superficially written, with a lack of clear motivations. Which is a shame because the performances of Cheryl Roy as Beverly, warm yet removed, approachable yet stern, and especially Caroline Neff, as Lorraine, an initially ditsy blonde who regularly misses her bus to work but turns out to have reserves of steely nerves, are so much more exceptionally layered than the writing.  Peter Moore as Dart and Peter Esposito as Raymond deliver shaded work as well, and Joannie Schultz’s direction is appropriately sardonic, but I wished they have more fully-formed material to work with.  The Receptionist closes on Sunday, May 19, at Steep Theatre Company, 1115 W. Berwyn Avenue.

Timon of Athens (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) – I guess if Shakespeare can have a frustratingly-written play in his canon, than I shouldn’t begrudge Adam Bock too much for The Receptionist. Most Shakespearian scholars acknowledge, however, that Timon of Athens was jointly written by Shakespeare and the satirist Thomas Middleton, which makes it even more surprising that the play feels so fragmented and, well, superficial.  Timon is a wealthy Athenian businessman/philanthropist who turns out to be heavily in debt.  When his so-called friends and hangers-on find out that he has lost all his money, they abandon him. He ends up in an island as a crotchety, slightly insane recluse, and discovers a stash of gold bullions.  He then shares the gold with his loyal estate manager Flavius and the military commander Alcibiades, before he strips off his clothes and disappears into what could only be conjectured as the ether. I’m not really sure I understand completely Timon’s role in his social circle, and why the abandonment of his friends drive him nearly insane; having not read the play, I’m not sure if this is Shakespeare and Middleton’s doing, or that of star Ian McDiarmid (usually of the Royal Shakespeare Company, most famously of the Star Wars prequels as Sen. Palpatine) and director Barbara Gaines, who “adapted” and “clarified” the play for the 21st century (this production has Timon as the CEO of a Wall Street trading company).  And other than Timon, the other characters are pretty broadly depicted – thus no one really comes off as a menacing, dishonest, Iago-level betrayer, and Timon’s relationships and the massive effect of their loss on him seem very obtuse.

Gaines’ production doesn’t really help clarify matters.  The show is fast-paced, impressively designed in a contemporary minimalist fashion by Kevin Depinet, and uses an incidental rock music score – definitely Shakespeare for the Twitter generation.  But Timon of Athens also has some pretty dubious elements: a train-wreck of an unnecessary dance number, which comes off as Black Swan meets Orlando strip club; an abbreviated subplot involving Alcibiades (a watchable Danforth Comins who unfortunately doesn’t have a lot to do) and his banishment from Athens; and, most frustratingly, a performance from McDiarmid that Chicago critics have labeled, uhmm, “idiosyncratic” and “unexpected”.  For me, it’s an odd performance – in Act One, flirty, shallow, small emotions, an older Andy Cohen lacking the gravitas of a CEO and famous philanthropist; in Act Two, scenery-chewing divo, big emotions but more Patti LuPone as Norma Desmond than Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (the what I think should have been an powerfully emotional exchange between Timon and the philosopher Apemanthus, played in a similarly fey fashion by James Newcomb, comes off like a bitchy catfight).  And unfortunately, I can’t figure out how that transition in the character happened. Timon of Athens runs till June 10 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier.

 Kin (Griffin Theatre Company) -  After seeing Griffin’s production of Bathsheba Doran’s Kin, about two New York twentysomethings who meet cute and fall in love, I’m ready to take a break from plays about two New York twentysomethings who meet cute and fall in love.  I guess I was optimistic to think that Doran, a playwright on the ascent, will say something new and fresh about a topic that has been done to death in numerous Off-Broadway plays (not to mention Katherine Heigl movies). But the situations and relationships in Kin are so stock and trite (they’re from different worlds, he is an immigrant Irish personal trainer, she’s an English grad student, both of them with volatile family histories), the play is wearying, and feels longer than The Iceman Cometh. And Griffin’s production is saddled with a perplexing set design by Scott Davis (which tries to evoke the bucolic Irish hometown of the guy and the hip, artsy New York milieu of the girl on one stage without scene changes and succeeds in neither – I mean if a treadmill is surrounded by fake grass and weeds, I don’t think you can say it is anything other than a treadmill surrounded by fake grass and weeds); listless performances from the leads (Shane Kenyon and Stacie Beth Green); and outsized performances from the supporting cast (the usually interesting Susan Monts-Bologna as Kenyon’s Irish mom, and Ann Sonneville as Green’s insecure best friend, need some dialing down).  Jess McLeod’s direction is unassuming, but I’m not sure what new insights she can draw from tired writing. Kin is at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, until June 10.

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