REVIEW: A Guide For The Perplexed (Victory Gardens)

Brilliant acting heightens uneven script

 

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Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
A Guide for the Perplexed
       
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by
Sandy Shinner
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through August 15  |
Tickets: $20–50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Chicago sees a lot of very good acting. Yet every once in a while an actor really socks you in the eyes with the difference between good and great. That’s Kevin Anderson in a Joel Drake Johnson’s quirky dark comedy, A Guide for the Perplexed, now in world premiere at Victory Gardens.

Weiler and Anderson, V Every movement, every line of Anderson’s body adds meaning to his brilliantly nuanced performance. Together with Francis Guinan, another highly talented Steppenwolf ensemble member, he makes such mundane acts as making a bed or feeding fish hilarious.

Anderson plays Doug, a 50-something loser who’s just left a five-year prison stretch. Exhausted mentally and physically, with nowhere else to go, he’s reluctantly staying in the den at his sister Sheila’s house on the North Shore — much to the dismay of her nerdy, stressed-out husband, Phillip (Guinan).

Already coping with his own crises, including his collapsing marriage and a deteriorating relationship with his teenage son, the neurotic Phillip’s ill-equipped to deal with his passive-aggressive brother-in-law’s uneasy return to freedom. Sheila, played by Meg Thalken in a series of brief phone calls, is away on business. Phillip, out of work and demoralized as the result of a criminal accusation that may or may not be accurate, spends his time gardening, cooking, reading romance novels and quarreling with his bright, but troubled, gay son Andrew (Bubba Weiler).

Andrew vents to his uncle, who makes caring, though clumsy efforts to help. In a sensitive performance, Bubba Weiler exudes a sometimes over-the-top teen angst.

The title of this dysfunctional-family story is taken from the esoteric text by medieval Jewish philospher Moses Maimonides aka Rambam. Andrew, a Hebrew scholar, tells his uncle that Maimonides offers a rational guide to the "problems of living." But when Doug presses for examples of what the great thinker had to say about their own specific troubles, Andrew cannot answer.

 

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The final, bizarre addition to the cast of characters is Betty, a prosperous woman from Cincinnati, one of Doug’s many prison pen pals. To his consternation, she’s driven all night, arriving at 6 a.m., to shower him with gifts and confess that she’s fallen in love with him through their mail correspondence. Cynthia Baker’s Southern-belle portrayal seems overly cheery and restrained, not nearly lovesick enough.

The action rotates indoors and out on a neat revolving set by Jeffrey Bauer that nicely evokes upper-middle-class suburbia, but its measured revolutions unnecessarily slow the pace. Meanwhile, Johnson’s script spins dizzyingly back and forth between absurd humor and bleak emotional outbursts.

Often, it works, such as in a highly evocative monologue in the second act where Guinan brilliantly describes the pleasures of grocery shopping as relief from depression. But such comic delicacy clashes with the heavy melancholia of the serious moments, and the abrupt, unsettled conclusion leaves viewers without catharsis.

In the hands of less-skilled actors, this play might not be worthwhile. This cast, however, puts A Guide for the Perplexed on the recommended list.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Note: Suitable for ages 14 and up.

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REVIEW: Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (Chicago Dramatists)

Dentists extract some painful truths

 

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Chicago Dramatists presents
   
Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
   
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by
Megan Shuchman
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is not this season’s most exciting title, but then the world of dentists isn’t exactly fraught with incident. Dental Society Midwinter Meeting is just that—a carefully chronicled, day-by-day depiction of a real convention, an annual conference of dentists where practitioners catch up on the profession’s latest developments, ethical challenges (insurance fraud and drug abuse), and party heart with conventioneers’ jubilation. Though the Chicago Dental Society’s conference is held at McCormick dsmm - 1 Place in February, playwright Laura Jacqmin moves the 6,000 dentists (and 12,000 vendors who prey on them) to the Skokie Marriott, if only to maintain a safe distance from any possible litigation by the C.D.S.

A true ensemble work, Megan Shuchman’s 80-minute world premiere staging presents the entire meeting through the playful testimony of six participants. We get hour by hour updates on the shenanigans and crises of doctors beset by more than just the problem of paying for central air conditioning or correctly coding their invoices to insurers. The male dentists indulge in male fantasies of wilderness adventure as they shop for hunters’ vests at Old Orchard’s L.L. Bean store. The surgeons munch Panera bread as they exchange gossip. One tries to free herself from an unscrupulous vendor whose tooth whitener is toxic. They sing karaoke (horribly) as they shake their booties on Saturday night.

This year’s conference is beset by a scandal in which the president of the North Shore Regional Dental Society has been caught in adultery with his comely dental hygienist; worse, he’s allowed her to practice advance dental procedures without a license. (Nothing really comes of this red herring.) The dentists are also supposedly caught up in late night discussions on how to clean up their leader’s act and their trade’s questionable image. Can they reform such a morally challenged pursuit?

Other problems fraught with insider details concern a gay dentist whose partner has been caught cheating on his lover’s billing practices. He in turn finds himself sexually manipulated in order to help a colleague in similar hot water.

dentists chicago dramatists castJacqmin certainly knows this medical subculture and examines it compassionately in what amounts to a keyhole-peeping expose. But she’s after more toothy substance than just a breakdown of breakout meetings and keynote speeches. By play’s end, Jacqmin implies that all their talk of self-regulation and moral uplift will, well, decay as the dentists’ bad habits undermine their best intentions. American professionals, it seems, are as trapped by short-sighted and short-term thinking as our corporate overseers.

The real payoff here is no artificially happy resolution of intractable problems but a very believable look at good folks working at cross-purposes to raise standards as much as fees.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
    

NOTE: No one under 14 years old will be admitted.

 

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