When a leading Republican Party presidential contender thinks it’s ok to discriminate against gays, doesn’t think that the constitution separates the church and the state, believes states should make birth control illegal, and points out that the uninsured shouldn’t use cell phones, then living in a world after an asteroid collision sounds like a better option than in a world with a Republican as President of the United States. The rhetoric and posturing in this long-drawn out Republican primary has bordered on the inconceivable, and, at times, the dangerous, so the shenanigans in Jason Wells’ funny, razor-sharp, yet seemingly underdeveloped The North Plan, now in its first Chicago production, in which America is under martial rule and where ordinary people ultimately, and literally, take the law into their own hands, seem to be less far-fetched than they originally seem. I saw The North Plan last year in its developmental production as part of Steppenwolf Theater’s new play program, First Look Rep, and although Theater Wit’s frenetic, exciting production under the flawless direction of Kimberly Senior (who also directed the earlier First Look production) is watchable, the reservations I had with Wells script last year still remain.
The play is set in a police station in Southern Missouri, where Carlton, a mid-level State department employee who claims he has the list of American citizens that are going to be arrested by the US government, has been thrown into the holding cell while awaiting the arrival of Department of Homeland Security agents sent to interrogate him. But there’s another unlikely occupant of the holding cell, which is unfortunate for Carlton, but terrific for us, the audience. Tanya, a foul-mouthed, tough-talking, not-too-bright, broad’s broad has turned herself in for driving under the influence the previous night, and she becomes the unwilling Carlton’s accomplice to safeguard the list and get it out to the hands of the media for publication. Tanya is one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in a new play recently – she’s tough, salt-of-the-earth, self-deprecating, realistic, attention-grabbing, with a vocabulary that seems to know more profanity than Chris Brown’s Twitter account. And in Kate Buddeke’s earth-shaking howl of a magnificent performance, both hilarious and empathetic, the play has its marvelous heart. What I love about Buddeke is that she transcends the camp-and-mug deliciousness of the character, but actually makes you believe that Tanya, despite being offered a sum of money to smuggle the list out of the police station, also wants to do, in her mind, the right thing. And the ending despite its outrageousness, feels so ambivalently right.
But the gaps in the writing that were in the developmental production are still in this revised version. How did Carlton get the list? Why is he in Southern Missouri instead of say Washington DC, or some other big city? What is the relevance of this particular setting, other than to set up the contrivance that a less-educated person like Tanya becomes the unlikely accomplice? Are there themes, then, around class differences that have not been fully explored? Why does Shonda, the police station’s Administrative Officer, just up and leave in the second act, despite playing a substantial role in the first act, and seeming to be the type of person who would be on the list according to Carlton? And maybe Wells meant The North Plan to be more of a parody, but until the final scenes, there doesn’t seem to be a palpable sense of menace and fear despite the backdrop of a US under siege, qualities that were more integrated in his earlier play, Men of Tortuga.
But there is a lot to like in this Theater Wit production. The cast is excellent, matching Buddeke’s game, with special props to the always-exceptional Kevin Stark as Carlton, winning even while hysterical, and Brian King, who appeared in the First Look production, as the calmer one of the Homeland Security agents, subtly funny in his preoccupation with his place in the power pyramid. Jack Magaw’s terrific, flexible set, which undergoes a significant change during intermission, is impressive in its detail and atmosphere.
The North Plan is at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, until April 1.