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Chicago by John Olson

In the Company of Men
Profiles Theatre

Also see John's review of Stella and Lou


Jordan Brown, Jessica Honor Carleton and Brennan Roche
Chances are good you've heard the premise of Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. Two businessmen in their late twenties, reeling from ugly breakups with their girlfriends, decide to get revenge on "women" by romancing an emotionally vulnerable deaf co-worker with the intention of dumping her after she's fallen for them. It's an idea repulsive enough to have kept me away from the 1997 film version of this play for some 15 years, even as I grew to know and enjoy other plays by LaBute. I've mostly come to know his writing through the many productions of his plays by Profiles Theatre, the Chicago storefront company of which LaBute is a resident artist. When Profiles announced this production, there was no chance of putting off my viewing of it any longer.

One of LaBute's earliest plays, it was first staged in 1993 at Brigham Young University, where he was a graduate student. He cast an undergrad named Aaron Eckhart as Chad, the instigator of the plot. When LaBute wrote and directed his indie film version in 1997, he again cast Eckhart as Chad and two big careers were born.

LaBute's reputation as a misogynist was born with this play, and haunts him still, even though the themes of his many plays and screenplays are much broader than that reputation would suggest. His characters here are misogynists, to be sure, but his sympathies aren't with them. He approaches them with a darkly comic and satiric tone that allows the audience to keep just enough distance from these guys to make the play not only watchable, but entertaining and engrossing. Note I said "just enough," though. The behaviors in the play feel true enough to haunt us long after the play ends.

In a long opening scene in a men's room of their office workplace, middle managers Chad (Jordan Brown) and Howard (Brennan Roche) bemoan their breakups and their insecurities over their jobs in an apparently large and impersonal New York company. Chad is the more vocal of the two, but he eventually pushes Howard's buttons enough to get Howard to let his fears and resentments rip. Chad is steamed that his live-in girlfriend has moved out with most of the furniture in tow. Howard's grievances came from offenses by his girlfriend of less than a year that were apparently more imagined than real, and he signs on to Chad's plan. The scene establishes that these two are clearly immature and narcissistic and allows us to laugh at them enough to not be fully disgusted with their plot.

Once they find their intended victim, the deaf temp typist Christine (Jessica Honor Carleton), we suspect things are not going to proceed exactly as they expect. Though terribly insecure about her deafness and her difficulty in speaking, Christine is shown to be a smart, kind and strong, though trusting, person. We're drawn to her, and much credit for that is due to Carleton's beautiful performance, which captures all those aspects of Christine—making us feel empathy for her situation, but not pity. Whatever may happen as a result of the guys' insidious and immature plot, we know she's a better person than they are, and is somehow, someday going to be in a better place than they are.

What does happen in the plot? If you haven't seen the movie and don't know already, it's best just to say things take some unexpected turns and leave it at that. Know, though, that the play is about a whole lot more than misogyny, or the immaturity of the young American male. It's about the need some people have to combat their own feelings of powerlessness by exerting power over others.

Director Rick Snyder gives the 95-minute intermissionless piece crisp direction—with the action moving briskly and cinematically between scenes in the office as well as other locations. Thad Hallstein's main unit set neatly suggests the cold environment of a glass and steel Manhattan office building, while roll-on and roll-out pieces establish various restaurants, apartments and hotel rooms. Mike T. May's lighting design further aids these transitions, punctuated by the original score and sound design of Jeffrey Levin. The film's premise of the two having been temporarily relocated to a branch away from New York was apparently written to allow LaBute to shoot on location while he was teaching in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. For the stage version, the action is more plausibly set in Manhattan with the cast wardrobed in the smart, expensive-looking business attire of Raquel Adorno's costumes.

Snyder mostly establishes just the right balance between realism and satire, though he directs that opening scene with a presentational Mametian cadence that is at odds with the realism of the later scenes. At first it feels that we don't need to worry too much about the cruelty of these men who seem to be just theatrical inventions played mostly for comedy. It's initially a little confusing and disorienting when the tone becomes more realistic in the remainder of the play. As Chad, Jordan Brown alternates between venality and charm and he keeps us guessing just who this guy really is. Chad's the more vocal and controlling of the two, but Howard is the more interesting character, with much more beneath his surface than we first suspect. Brennan Roche shows us Howard's layers slowly and gradually—moving from quiet, mild-mannered guy to rage. The three leads are also supported by an ensemble of eight that play minor roles convincingly.

LaBute revised his original stage script for this production and while I can't directly compare the version produced here to either the original play or the film's screenplay, my reading of a plot summary for the film leads me to surmise some key scenes in the film are not present here. The movie version apparently included some incidents relating to Chad and Howard's workplace relationship that provided valuable perspective into their motivations. Those incidents are hinted at, but not fully shown in this new version of the stage script.

In the Company of Men challenges our belief that most people in our daily lives like neighbors or co-workers are, if not always kind, at least neutral toward us most of the time and only motivated to take action against someone else when their own self-interest is threatened. The thought that there are people who are deliberately cruel as an end in itself is deeply disturbing and one that haunts after our viewing of this black comedy is over.

In the Company of Men will play Profiles Theatre Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, through June 30, 2013. For ticket information, visit www.profilestheatrea or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: Michael Brosilow.

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-- John Olson



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