It’s a crazy world we live in people, between face-eating in Miami, Scott Walker-unrecall in Wisconsin, and beauty pageant-rigging in Donald Trump’s House of Miss USA. For my part, I nearly shaved my head bald and ripped my clothes off to run naked in the streets when I read the crazy rumor that Liza Minnelli and Tony Danza were getting married. Liza and Tony married? That’s not one hell of a jumbotron of crazy, but Armageddon. So I’m not surprised that some of our younger playwrights are writing about the delicate balance of mind and heart that our turbulent 21st century world creates in its citizens. My thoughts on two productions I recently saw:
I am Going to Change the World
Something really bizarre happens to John, the main character of Andrew Hinderaker’s ambitious new play, I am Going to Change the World, now receiving its world premiere production at Chicago Dramatists, on his 35th birthday: he physically, emotionally, and psychologically relives the day when he was 22 and on his way to an interview at Goldman Sachs for a job that would be the starting point of achieving his life ambition: to become CEO of Goldman, the largest bank in the world. From this intriguing premise, the play weaves along in sometimes impressively unexpected, in other times frustratingly incomplete twists and turns. I won’t give away the rest of the play’s narrative because Hinderaker, a fresh, interesting, assured voice whose Suicide Incorporated received tremendous buzz a couple of years ago (a buzz I wasn’t as caught up in as the rest of the city’s, uhmm, theater cognoscenti), and ended up being produced by Roundabout Theater in New York, has written a somewhat compelling narrative. I am Going to Change the World is ostensibly about coping with mental illness, but it also contains some painfully honest things to say about failure, disappointment, ambition, and familial expectations.
Unfortunately, like many new plays I’ve recently seen in Chicago, I am Going to Change the World probably requires several more rewrites. The riveting first act, in which you’re not really sure what is triggering John’s lapses into the past, and whether these lapses are reality or only occurring is his mind, gives way to a more conventional storytelling in the second act. If Act One has shades of Memento, Act Two is more In Treatment lite meets a smarter Private Practice without the sultry romances. For me, the shift in tone between the two acts is perplexing. Although John is a multi-layered character, a complicated mix of angst, anger, insecurity, and confused nice guy, the rest of the characters (his parents, his therapist, Dr. Jensen, his faithful best friend Troy) are more sketchily-written. There are also two plot threads that I find frustratingly underdeveloped. First, I never really get a satisfying sense of why John and Troy’s friendship is so deep (the scene near the end of the play when Troy recalls their first meeting is a cop-out, I mean, you don’t sleep in your friend’s room and administer his medication for a year just because he ordered the same wussy drink you did at a bar). Second, in an early scene Hinderaker hints at some motivations on why Dr. Jensen is working with John but never really fully develops it (did she have a research project on John’s specific type of “anniversary” disorder?). And the role is also very reactive, with no engaging visible interior life – again the late revelation that she lost her child comes from nowhere (although Judy Blue is, as expected, marvelous).
Jonathan Berry directs I am Going to Change the World with his usual capable hand, and the cast is outstanding (Norm Woodel as John’s wound-up father is terrific). However, I think the play is compulsively watchable because of Nicholas Harazin’s dazzling turn as John. It is a star performance that heralds the arrival of an exciting young actor in Chicago (Harazin is a recent transplant per the playbill). He is always believable as he navigates the sometimes conflicting sides of John’s personality- both confident and struggling, turbulent and focused. It is an anchoring performance for a play that still needs to find its way.
Tigers Be Still
I don’t think Kim Rosenstock’s affable Tigers Be Still, now receiving an audience-pleasing premiere from Theater Wit under the confident direction of Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler, has any aspiration to say anything terribly profound about mental illness or emotional disorders. Everyone’s just depressed with life (who wouldn’t be?), and they’re all trying to cope as best as they could. Sherry was depressed for months due to unemployment and overeducation until she gets her new job at the beginning of the play as art teacher and art therapist, and she’s trying to do as well as she can in both. Grace, her sister, is depressed at being cheated on by her fiancée and copes by stealing stuff from his condo, laying on the couch and chugging Jack Daniels, singing Bette Midler off-key, and watching and re-watching Top Gun’s steamy love scene. Zack, Sherry’s teaching assistant and art therapy patient, is depressed at his mom’s death and his frayed relationship with his father so he goes to sleep in his mom’s shoe closet with his face in her used tennis shoes. Mr. Moore, Zack’s dad and principal of the local high school so Sherry’s boss, is probably depressed as well about his wife’s death and his son’s alienation but just doesn’t show it. He however keeps a rifle by his side, supposedly to ward off, if necessary, the tiger that escaped from the zoo and which is now freely and dangerously roaming their unnamed small town.
Rosenstock’s writing is light and good-natured, without making fun of people with depression. She is also able to quietly yet forcefully navigate tragic themes such as the death of Zack’s mom without taking away from the overall crispness of the writing. And her writing is smart, brisk, sardonic, with many memorable quips courtesy of the CVS employee with anger management issues Zach and the dumped bride-to-be with obsessive fixations Grace. I’m not sure ultimately what Rosentock is saying, other than everyone can overcome their emotional issues when they put their mind to it. There’s nothing earthshaking or innovative there, but Tigers Be Still is still an entertaining night at the theater anyway. And the cast is terrific, Mary Winn Heider as Sherry, Guy Massey as Mr. Moore, and the peerless Matt Farrabee (whose line readings are always astounding) as Zack all give luminous, committed performances. Show MVP though is Kasey Foster’s balls-out, outrageous, yet poignantly vulnerable, Grace. It’s a terrifically memorable performance: when she leaves her ex-fiancee a rambling rendition of Midler’s “The Rose” on his cellphone voicemail, you want to both strangle and hug her.
You can catch I am Going to Change the World at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., until July 1. However, you only have until June 16 (it has been extended once already) to catch Tigers Be Still at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont.