The Vanishing

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how-to-disappear-mary-arrchie.jpgOf course, I’ve Googled myself (and I’m pretty sure a significant number of this blog’s readers have done it for themselves as well, but too embarrassed to admit it).  I have close to 700 Google entries, ranging from various From the Ledge posts to my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter profile pages to random web and media mentions such as the Tribune’s article on Top Chef Stephanie Izard’s Wandering Goat dinners (the last time I could recall seeing the word habitué it was in relation to the regular denizens of Studio 54…am I the Bianca Jagger of the Chicago underground dining scene? Yikes!).  In our world today, technology has not only bridged distances and arguably improved human interaction, but has also heightened virtual voyeurism and scrutiny of other people’s lives, whether they are public personas like celebrities, politicians, athletes, or Levi Johnston or just regular people such as your 7th-grade crush who’s now living in Wyoming whom you’ve  Googled and friended on Facebook.  Unless you’re Unabomber Redux, your identity DNA is scattered everywhere.  So Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, now receiving a crisp, riveting Midwest premiere from the Godfather of all Storefronts, Mary-Arrchie Theater Co., is provocative and timely in its starting premise that one can erase one’s former life and dive into a totally new one.   I think it’s a terrific production that should deservedly bring in the Tweeting, Facebooking, Posterousing peeps into that second floor enclave on Angel Island.

How to Disappear is about an English advertising manager, Charlie, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown: he just cremated his mother, his agency’s bosses have just confronted him about his misuse of company funds, his dealer is collecting on his debt, and he thinks everyone in posh, fancy schmanzy cocktail parties are fake (which I don’t think anyone really needs to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown to realize that).  So he seeks out a shady old friend of his mum’s, Mike, whom he met at the funeral, and asks for his advice on how to deal with this fast-crumbling world.  And Mike’s sagely opinion?  Completely erase Charlie, the old self, and become Adam, a totally new one.  Of course in Kennedy’s fresh, incisive writing, that ultimately isn’t as easy as simply shedding an old pair of jeans; it will probably not even be possible. 

I like Kennedy’s contemporary voice a lot, and I think the strongest parts of the play are when he sardonically writes about the incongruity and frustrations and general whacked-ness of 21st century life, such as the biting cocktail party scene or, especially, Charlie’s searing, hits-too-close-to-home monologue about what he would like to do, but doesn’t, to irritating people he meets in his day to day activities (yep, I really relate to his feeling about that cretin who holds up the Starbucks line while there’s like 700 grumpy, barely-awake people waiting for their first coffee of the day behind him/her/it!).  I think Kennedy is less successful, and mystifying, when he goes to dreaded Sarah Ruhl-like precocious pseudo-absurdist territory such as Charlie’s scenes with the pathologist who insists that he is dead when he knows he is not, or the scenes set in the lower depths of the London tube system with the guy who is the caretaker of lost things.  I’m not really convinced that the whimsy these scenes provide effectively counteract the stronger, darker, cynically comedic tone of the rest of the play….or should.

Director and Mary-Arrchie Artistic Director Richard Cotovsky, though, is in excellent control of the sometimes tonally inconsistent but always intriguing written material.  He paces the scenes well, with many scenes scrumptiously bite-sized and not overstaying their welcome.  And he is helped by an excellent cast with a startlingly masterful grasp of the cadences and social distinctions of contemporary British accents.  Since Charlie is the lead role, and the audience stand-in, you need a compellingly watchable performer in it, and Carlo Lorenzo Garcia doesn’t disappoint, giving us a wonderfully complicated portrayal, a combination disdainful, ironic hipster; half-frightened, semi-confused man-boy; and Jude Law’s darker-haired younger cousin (charming but in a sexy-mean way).  I’ve been following Garcia’s Chicago career since I saw him in Greasy Joan & Co.’s Greg Allen-directed Woyzeck several years back, and I do think this is quite a breakthrough performance for him, which should definitely, and deservedly, bring on bigger things.  His tour-de-force delivery of Charlie’s Act One monologue that I mentioned earlier, both hilariously brutal and fiercely audience-indicting at the same time, joins the short list of the single most memorable scenes I’ve seen in Chicago theater this season.  The rest of the cast is no chopped liver by any means, ably switching characters, excellently demonstrating emotions and character traits  in soundbytes, and vividly illuminating Kennedy’s McSweeney’s-hip writing, with Kevin Stark’s cynical, blustery Mike quite the stand-out.

I think the rest of the production elements are well-thought out, although I’m not really too sold on the set design (the old newspaper-covered backdrop doesn’t really complement anything in the playwriting, as far as I can tell, and I’m sure there are better chairs in the city than those Chinatown-dive-joint ones the show uses in multiple scene settings, from pubs to Mike’s mansion).  I think more importantly, though, How to Disappear represents new, vibrant, sleekly contemporary playwriting that we should have more of in our storefront theater scene, instead of the usual tired La Butes, Rapps, and their ilk.  I brought several people new to Mary-Arrchie to this play, and some of them really casual theatergoers, and they all came away provoked, intrigued, satisfied, and looking forward to the next production at the theater. Good plays are always the best marketing material for a theater company, in my view.

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found is at Mary-Arrchie Theater Co.’s Angel Island digs, second floor of 735 W. Sheridan Road until December 20.  It’s a can’t-miss Chicago play during this yawn-inducing holiday theater season of Christmas Carol clones and corporate theater (looking at you BIC and banana schpeels-meels!). 

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