New plays in Chicago

Short reviews of a few plays I’ve seen lately.

AN APOLOGY FOR THE COURSE AND OUTCOME OF CERTAIN EVENTS DELIVERED BY DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS ON THIS HIS FINAL EVENING by Theater Oobleck — Another masterpiece in miniature by Evanston playwright Mickle Maher, who wrote one of my favorite plays of recent years, The Strangerer. I did not see An Apology… the first time that Theater Oobleck presented it several years ago, with Maher in the title role. This time Colm O’Reilly plays Doctor Faustus, while David Shapiro takes on the unusual role that O’Reilly played in the original production: a silent Mephistopheles, who just sits and listens for the entire play as Faustus delivers his desperate, dying monologue. Even the way that audiences enter the Chopin Theatre basement’s performance space to see An Apology… is dramatic and peculiar. I won’t give away much at all about this show, because as much of it as possible should be a surprise. Maher’s writing is a brilliant, black-humor variation on the Faust legend about a man selling his soul to the devil. This version goes off in some strange directions, including a riff on 7-Eleven stores. O’Reilly delivers every single syllable with sad-eyed intensity. The entire experience is riveting, and not to be missed.

ANIMAL CRACKERS at the Goodman Theatre — This re-creation of a 1928 musical-comedy show starring the Marx Brothers is a pretty unusual thing to see on a major stage in 2009. Like the movie based on the play (one of my favorite screen comedies), Animal Crackers is wildly uneven. The scenes featuring Groucho, Chico and Harpo are hilariously madcap, but the romantic subplots featuring everyone else are often clunky. So, no, the play by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind is not a great one, and if the Marx Brothers hadn’t starred in it, it probably would be forgotten. The Goodman production does a decent job of making those non-Marx scenes tolerable, or even enjoyable, especially when the cast is signing and dancing. Joey Slotnick, Jonathan Brody and Molly Breenan bring a lot of fun and panache to the Groucho, Chico and Harpo roles. Seeing them perform is a bit like watching a tribute band re-creating the songs of a more famous artist. The Marx Brothers were so fabulous that you can’t help enjoying this, even though it’s just a good imitation of the real thing. Go into this show with the attitude that you’re about to experience an old-fashioned piece of entertainment, a glimpse of what stage comedy was like more than 80 years ago.

THE MERCY SEAT at Profiles Theatre — Once again, playwright Neil LaBute bluntly probes the darkness of the human mind. Or should I say: the male mind? Like many of LaBute’s films and plays, The Mercy Seat features a man who doesn’t follow the better angels of his nature. This one-act, two-character drama takes place in New York on Sept. 12, 2001. Ben (Darrell W. Cox) and his lover, Abby (Cheryl Graeff), argue about some big life decisions in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ben is a craven coward, with an appalling plan for dealing with some of the problems in his life. At moments, Abby seems to be enabling Ben’s cowardice, but at other times, she attacks him with acidic fury. Cox and Graeff are both superb in these difficult, complex roles. Like most of LaBute’s work, this play is not exactly what you would call a pleasant experience, but it is ultimately powerful and emotionally wrenching.

Theater Oobleck photo: Kristin Basta. Goodman Theatre photo: Eric Y. Exit. Profiles Theatre photo: Wayne Karl

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