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Chicago by John Olson

The Earl
The Inconvenience

Also see John's review of Les Misérables

The Earl
Ryan Bourque, Walter Briggs, Danny Goldring and Christopher Chmelik
Theatre is filled, of course, with family dramas in which the members do psychic harm to each other. In this one, they do physical harm, and for a good 20-30 minutes into this piece, I was wondering why I was there. The characters are three adult brothers who have assembled to play a ritualistic game in which they attack each other with such weapons as tire irons, hammers and scalding hot coffee; and the violence is stopped only for moments when the brothers review and debate the arcane and incomprehensible rules of the game.  (For example, coffee is used in the game only once every eight years.) We don't learn much about the family, except that brother Rick had secretly moved to Los Angeles before returning home for this year's game; and that he has not been in contact with their mother, who apparently lives in a nursing home. Beyond that, no family secrets or scandals, just the game.

Peter (Walter Briggs) is possibly the oldest, or maybe just seems to be because he's the most confident and most committed to the game. The dim Kent (Ryan Bourque) is probably the youngest. He's quite into the game as well, but more likely to follow Peter's lead. Rick (Christopher Chmelik) is not as clearly defined as the other two brothers in the first half of the play, but he becomes more sharply drawn when a fourth player arrives on the scene. The outsider's name is Lawrence Stephens (Danny Goldring), but in the game he is the Earl—an allowed player, who, if brought into the game and accepted by the other players, is bound by no rules, nor are there any rules governing what the other players can do to him.  Once the Earl arrives, the ideas behind Brett Neveu's 55-minute one-act play come in to focus.  If you prefer to stay in the dark and have these ideas unfold gradually, as they did for me, read no further.

Stephens, it turns out, is an iconic Hollywood movie star—an action figure and hero in the mold of Clint Eastwood, fighting for justice and masculine honor in films like The Last Sergeant (in which, apparently, Stephens is the last sergeant on Earth and battles "alien bastards").  Stephens is also Rick's boss, employing Rick as his personal manager, with such responsibilities as managing Stephens's social calendar. Stephens, "The Earl" if you please, has studied the rules and eagerly joins in the very real and bloody game—one in which the players quite realistically role-play as macho men unafraid to endure pain or inflict it on others. The brothers may have been playing this fantasy game since their youth—a sort of video game or action film battle brought to life.  In the abandoned office where they play they are Van Damme or The Rock.  For Stephens, it's a chance to live like the action figures he's portrayed on screen and a break from his soft off-screen life. Neveu's dark satire shows the men taking their folly seriously and enjoying the hell out of themselves even as they're writhing in pain.

Male machismo, addictive fantasy games, hero worship and sibling rivalry may all be targets of Neveu's dark little Tarantino-esque comedy. It's like a Charles Addams cartoon given three dimensions on stage, and with about as much to say. The cast makes it all watchable. Briggs nails Peter's swagger, and Bourque as the skinny but resilient dimwit Kent is an amusing and endearing dope.  Chmelik might have found more to do with Rick in the first 30 minutes—he's a cipher until Stephens comes on the scene and we see Rick as a sycophant to his movie star employer. It seems possible that Rick has planned his move out to LA to find a way to one-up his brothers by bringing in the best "Earl" imaginable.

Goldring is an absolute hoot as Stephens and he's just about the only person to have played the role: He originated the part in the 2006 Chicago production which ran for six months as a late night show and repeated the role in a 2007 feature film version.  His Stephens is a masterful pastiche of Dirty Harry swagger combined with confusion of the onset of aging and the elegance of a charming leading man. Goldring navigates all these nuances expertly, and his cast mates come to life as well once he takes the stage.

Director Duncan Riddell establishes just the right dark comic tone and directs all the violence efficiently. He must share credit with fight choreographers Bourque and Chuck Coyl, who provide a Super Bowl of stage violence. Much credit is due as well to Mary Williamson for her costume and makeup design, which involves much blood squirting and spurting everywhere. John Holt designed the believably seedy-looking set, filled with dirty discarded objects and furniture by prop designer Brian Rad.

The Earl will not be to everyone's taste and that's okay, but it's just the ticket for those who admire the films of Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. And for anyone who has been trying to get some young male moviegoers to give live theater a try, this is the play with which to start.

The Earl will be performed Sundays through Wednesdays through Wednesday, February 23rd at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, Chicago. For tickets, visit www.theinconvenience.org/earl.html or call (773) 658-4438. Please note: the box office at A Red Orchid Theatre is not handling tickets for this production.


Photo: Erica Jaree  

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-- John Olson



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