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Chicago by John Olson

A Guide for the Perplexed
Victory Gardens Theater

A Separate Peace
Bubba Weiler, Kevin Anderson
and Francis Guinan

As an ex-con fresh out of prison, Kevin Anderson is onstage throughout the first act of Joel Drake Johnson's new play, and most of the second as well. That ought to be enough time to get a handle on who the character is, but Johnson's script has Anderson's character wildly bouncing from mood to mood without ever giving Anderson any sort of anchor to let us know where the guy is coming from. One minute he demonstrates his anger management issues, the next he's sweet and cuddly. He's crude enough to remark on the "great tits" shown on a drawing of a woman on the cover of a romance novel, but he's also a poet with a passing knowledge of literature. Anderson gives it his all, but the result seems more like a series of acting exercises than a coherent play.

The play's premise is solid enough. It's a variant on the classic structure of an antagonist coming into a group and upsetting the order. The twist here is that there's not much order in the family he visits anyway. Following his release from prison, Doug, having no place else to live, crashes at his sister's home in suburban Chicago. The sister is out of town on a business trip, though, leaving Doug alone with her husband Phillip (Francis Guinan) and their troubled gay teenaged son. Doug's never really gotten along with Phillip, a prissy, obsessive-compulsive sort. Phillip recently lost his job over unproven allegations of theft, and his marriage to Sheila (Meg Thalken) is seriously on the rocks. Son Andrew (Bubba Weiler) is a geeky, super-smart kid who is taunted so horribly at school that he's begun to skip regularly and says he thinks of suicide every day.

The events unfold fairly predictably. The ultra-organized Phillip clashes with the slovenly, free-spirited Doug and the rebellious Andrew. Along the way, these tortured souls find redemption in their ability to help each other cope with the considerable pain in their lives. It's a good message, even if a familiar one, but Johnson fails to set up the journey believably. Things happen too quickly—the total action of the play occurs over some 36 hours or so, apparently. Phillip, Doug and Andrew open up to each other too quickly, and tones shift inexplicably from some rather broad comedy to pathos in a heartbeat, without sufficient motivation.

That said, the cast all commit themselves clearly to the proceedings. Phil could be a cousin to The Odd Couple's Felix Ungar—obsessively neat and orderly. Between the loss of his job and the strained relationship with his wife, he's wounded to the point of retreating from society. Guinan gives the guy a wealth of tics and mannerisms, and manages to keep some humanity in the character even though Johnson plays him for laughs quite mercilessly so much of the time. Weiler makes a convincingly sad Andrew—one who's almost a little scary in that you see a kid smart and tortured enough to be a Columbine killer.

In the second act, Doug is visited by a prison pen-pal acquaintance, the successful but lonely businesswoman Betty. Inexplicably showing up unannounced at Phillip and Sheila's home at 6:30 in the morning, she claims to love Doug, though they've never met face-to-face. Cynthia Baker plays Betty with grace and humanity, but Johnson fails to give more than surface-level explanations for the affection and generosity she gives toward Doug. The sister Sheila is seen only in a few brief vignettes, calling in from a business trip. We don't get much of a sense about her, and it's hard to picture why she's married to Phillip.

Though Doug's backstory is ultimately revealed, the script leaves us guessing about him for way too long. There's no clear sense about what may be driving him in any particular direction as the play progresses. Anger, fear, resentment, arrogance, insecurity? All of the above, apparently, even when his emotions seem to be contradictory. Johnson gives Anderson and director Sandy Shinner little in the way of an arc for the character and I doubt anyone else could have staged the action any more convincingly. What is totally believable is the stunning set by Jeffrey Bauer in which a detailed and realistic suburban home rotates between a den and a patio.

This all feels very much like a first draft. Johnson has plenty of good ideas and the beginnings of some funny and sympathetic characters (there are a decent number of good laughs throughout). If he can refine this all into a more coherent and linear story, and help us form a clear point of view toward Doug, this could be a very stageworthy play.

A Guide for the Perplexed will play through August 15, 2010, at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available at the box office (773-871-3000) or online at www.victorygardens.org.


Photo: by Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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