Review: This (Theater Wit)

 
  

Theater Wit exposes adultery with intelligence and grace

  
  

Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in 'This' at Theater Wit. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Theater Wit presents
  
This
  
Written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler 
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $24  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What if “the other woman” was not some scheming, seductive siren but your best friend? Many dramas make melodramatic hash out of both kinds of scenarios but This, the latest production of Theater Wit, keeps a cool, compassionate head about sexual transgressions between friends. Melissa James Gibson’s comic script handles the subject with insight, gentle maturity and grace. Theater Wit has a hit on its hands because This demonstrates the right mix of humor and common sense about relationships, love, loss, and recovery. Meanwhile, Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is nothing less than a deft touch–keeping the action clear, light and decidedly on track.

Rebecca Spence as Jane in 'This' at Theater Wit.  Photo by Johnny Knight.Jane (Rebecca Spence) has spent the past year grieving the death of her husband, Roy. Fortunately, she’s had the support of her friends from college, Tom (John Byrnes) and Marrill (Lily Mojekwu), who are married and having their first child; and Alan (Mitchell J. Fain), the “gay friend.” While the gay friend has pretty much become a stock character for contemporary comedy, Fain makes the role distinctly his own, delivering Gibson’s dialogue with a razor sharp edge, which makes the humor more vivid and Alan’s personal revelations more poignant.

Jane’s friendships with these three carry their own sharp edge; the play is quite knowing about the ways friendships can both nourish and undermine the individual. Dinner at Tom and Merrill’s starts with Merrill’s attempts to set up Jane with a new guy, Jean-Pierre (Steve Hadnagy), but it also subjects Jane to a game that puts her on the spot and pulls more information out of her than she’s ready to reveal. Later, Tom shows up on Jane’s doorstep, confessing to a well of untapped desire for her. Jane’s slip-up with Tom acts as the catalyst to plumb whole underlying assumptions her friends have about her and about each other.

The show is not just about Jane but also about how a group of friends handles the rocky changes within long-term relationships—new stresses, miscommunication, unspoken needs and momentary betrayals. Scene after scene regales the audience with witty banter, but the play never strays too far from the loss really haunting Jane. Spence makes every moment count–both her surrender to Tom and her final meltdown are convincingly real. Merrill’s postpartum malaise over her marriage to Tom is grounded by Mojekwu’s solid intelligence and sensuality. Byrnes brings the right level of silent frustration to Tom getting shut out in the marriage. As for Hadnagy’s portrayal of Jean-Pierre, he keeps a light touch—all the better to play an easygoing continental without falling into French-y caricature.

If there are any flaws to the play’s otherwise realistic portrayal of friendship and relationships, it’s in Tom and Merrill’s rather rapid recovery after Jane has let the cat out of the bag about her and Tom’s affair. Also, Alan’s perfect memory–to establish the truth of Merrill and Tom’s He Said/She Said moments—comes across as more of a contrivance than actual drama. But the smoothness with which the cast skates through Gibson’s script redeems these flaws. Wechsler’s cast engages the script with an enviable liquid alacrity, creating scenes with instinctually fluid reactions between people who have known each other for ages. For all the burden of Jane’s secret shame and the pressured snippiness between Tom and Merrill, these are people who like each other and rely on each other’s company as a witness to their lives. No matter what their flaws, they are just the people to bring Jane back to the land of the living.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Rebecca Spence and Lily Mojekwu in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

Mitchell J. Fain and Rebecca Spence in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight. Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

This continues through March 27th, with performance  Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.   Single tickets are $15 to $35.  For tickets and information, visit TheaterWit.org or call the Theater Wit box office, 773.975.8150.

    
     

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REVIEW: The Santaland Diaries (Theater Wit)

  
  

Spend a bawdy evening with Santa’s fave martini-swilling elf

   
   

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Theater Wit presents
   
The Santaland Diaries
   
Written by David Sedaris
Adapted by
Joe Mantello
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A few days after Black Friday—and are you sick of it yet?  Has Christmas decor begun to look blindingly tacky to you?  Does the constant replay of Christmas tunes already fill you with bored revulsion?  You may need a retreat to an ashram where the saffron-robed monks have never heard of Christmas. 

Or you could try The Santaland Diaries, now onstage at Theater Wit, directed by Jeremy Wechsler.  A new holiday classic—although new is really stretching it since David Sedaris first regaled NPR audiences with his elfin misadventures in 1992.  Still, this ironic, melancholy 90’s swipe at America’s most oversold holiday has held up well, if for no other reason than because we, as a country, consistently make the same old mistakes about Christmas that we have ever made before.

Urinal - potrait“I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm that Santa requires,” quips Mitchell Fain.  His performance is definitely sharper, more caustic than Sedaris’s, who delivers his tale with soft, wry, and distanced resignation to the absurdities of his elf-training at Macy’s for Christmas.  Indeed, in a startling departure from Sedaris’s original work, the actor makes a stab at comparing Santa with Satan.  But who’s to say that’s wrong? 

In it’s own light, sardonic way, The Santaland Diaries is a parade of Christmas horrors, another example of man’s inhumanity to man, the banality of marketing manipulation wrapped in candy-striped tights and a green velvet coat.  Macy’s Santaland, constructed as the happiest place on earth at the most joyous time of year, gets exposed at its worst in this humorous yet Bruegelian portrait of communal venality and desperation. 

Being an elf in the service of Macy’s exposes one to a thousand humiliations and we can be grateful to Fain’s impeccable comic timing that these get rattled off with a full range, from self-deprecation to sly satire to burlesque to savage and direct improv with the audience.  But elfin humiliations in the name of commercialism are not the worst of Satanland Santaland.  There are much worse:  parents who slap their children because they won’t stop crying and get on Santa’s lap, parents who request a “traditional” Santa—by that they mean a Caucasian one, parents who manipulate their children to promote their own political views and parents who tell their children it’s okay to pee in the artificial snow.  Even martinis cannot allay the madness that only escalates in the countdown toward Christmas day.

IMG_4786_JPGFor this reason the act’s one last magical moment doesn’t quite sell.  Out of a million wonderfully weird and self-absorbed Santas, one shows up to treat the children as they should be treated and teach us all a Christmas lesson.  It’s the one sentimental false note of Joe Mantello’s adaptation.  While it might send the crowd out of the theater with a smile, it simply cannot reconcile all atrocities committed from attempting to manufacture warm and fuzzy holiday feelings to promote higher retail sales.

Real Christmas spirit can’t be bought or sold.  Real magical childhood moments are fleeting and unpredictable.  Real development as a human being means accepting life’s flaws and imperfections, not inhumanely overreaching to grasp at meaningless once-in-a-lifetime perfection.  If nothing else, The Santaland Diaries can help you laugh off the Christmas madness, even if that madness has become embedded in our yearly traditions.            

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   
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REVIEW: The Four of Us (Theater Wit)

   
  

Rare find: a sophisticated comedy for bros!

  
  

(from left) Usman Ally, Collin Geraghty, Usman Ally and Collin Geraghty in the Midwest premiere of The Four of Us

   
Theater Wit presents
  
The Four of Us
   
Written by Itamar Moses
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
Extended thru Dec 18  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Who among your friends do you measure yourself against? Theater Wit’s critically acclaimed production, The Four of Us, by award-winning playwright Itamar Moses, knowingly and humorously examines the shifting fortunes and friendship between two writers in search of artistic and worldly success–a quixotic and mercurial adventure if ever there was. Who could ever be prepared for the toll success may take when one writer receives unforeseen recognition in the cultural economy while the other flounders in the sea of struggling-to-make-it? For those unfamiliar with the Usman Ally and Collin Geraghty in The Four of Us by Itamar Mosesconcept of writer’s envy, Kathryn Chetkovich’s classic essay, which originally appeared in the magazine “Granta”, remains excellent background material for this drama.

David (Usman Ally), a struggling playwright, takes his old buddy, Benjamin (Collin Geraghty), out to lunch to celebrate the upcoming publication of Benjamin’s very first novel. It’s all part of the pact that they had made back in college – whoever makes it first, whether first novel or first play, has to buy the other lunch at a restaurant of their choice. But Benjamin’s novel getting published is not simply one man’s goal achieved—it’s success at a spectacularly obscene level. Huge bid by a major publisher, sold movie rights, a famous Hollywood actor looking to direct it—all of which, to David’s thunderstruck reaction, his long-time pal Benjamin writes off as nothing. Is it artistic integrity on Benjamin’s part or a victory won too easily to appreciate? Is his diffidence a slight indication of low self-esteem or another way to garner David’s attention for his achievement? Whatever the motive, David gets bitten by the envy bug but still buys Benjamin’s lunch.

Jeremy Wechsler’s direction keeps the witty back-and-forth between Ally and Geraghty crisp and taut. In fact, Moses script is reminiscent of Mamet in that each beat and inflection between actors requires rapid-fire interaction and two complementary mindsets practically joined at the third eye. David’s relationship with Benjamin may be a little too close for comfort, since Benjamin’s pronouncements on literature, women, relationships and life perpetually override David’s own judgment and lived experience. The playwright has a keen eye for the worshipful man-crush, supported by underlying structures of insecurity and crippling self-doubt. The Four of Us demonstrates intense emotional maturity about the immature reasons guys subtly compete with each other and compare the progress of their lives with the friends they are closest to.

 

(from left) Usman Ally plays David and Collin Geraghty portrays Benjamin in the Midwest premiere of The Four of Us, Collin Geraghty and Usman Ally in Theater Wit's The Four of Us

The play also jumps about between the current, alternating trials and triumphs of the characters and their college days—a summer in Prague, sharing a joint in their dorm room the year before and, for the grand finale, the first time they met as counselors in summer band camp. If the production has a weakness, it’s in the portrayal of David and Benjamin in their more youthful and idealistic years. Ally and Geraghty spar brilliantly with each other, but fail to bring the nuanced edge of jejune enthusiasm for life ahead of them that is the hallmark of college days. Given that this ultra-talky play constructs the evolution each goes through about the other, the production needs to demonstrate greater contrast between past and present. Without that, David and Benjamin’s relationship only comes across as one big gabfest with slightly distinct variations.

Playful scene changes and Joseph Fosco’s smart sound design keeps the energy lively from scene to scene. The Four of Us is fast-paced and cunning. Whether he digs theater or not, catch your best bud and drag him to see it. This is one of the most sophisticated comedies for the bros that I’ve seen in while. One can only hope that it will get made into a movie to wow the audiences at Sundance or Telluride.

 
   
Rating: ★★★½   
   
  

The Four Of Us - Theater Wit - Collin Geraghty and Usman Ally

     
itama moses

Playwright Itamar Moses

Production Personnel

Playwright: Itamar Moses
Director: Jeremy Wechsler 
Cast: Usman Ally, Collin Geraghty
Light Design:  Scott Pillsbury
Sound Design: Joseph Fosco 
Set Design: Roger Wykes
Costumes: Christine Pascual
Stage Manager: Wendye Clarendon

All production photos by Johnny Knight

      
      

REVIEW: Big River (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)

 

BoHo takes a heartwarming trip down the Mississippi

 

 A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
 
Music/Lyrics: Roger Miller, Book: William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by
P. Marston Sullivan
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 10 |
Tickets: $25 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Widely considered the greatest American novel ever written, Mark Twain’s 1884 coming-of-age tale, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, received a lively musical treatment 100 years after its publication in Big River. The Tony Award-winning musical, which ran 1,000 performances on Broadway, captures the charm and  A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10thpoignancy of the original, as we follow Huck and the escaped slave Jim down the "Muddy Water" of the Mississippi River, "Waitin’ for the Light to Shine" — as the songs put it. Although no stage production could possibly encompass all the nuances of Twain’s masterpiece, this well-cut adaptation by William Hauptman delivers the essence, paired with a fitting, catchy score by country-music star Roger Miller that blends foot-stompin’ bluegrass, powerful spirituals, vaudevillian comedy numbers and such memorable ballads as "River in the Rain."

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble mounts a warm, intimate and beautifully sung revival in their handsome new home at Lakeview’s Theater Wit, full of bouyant humor and touching moments.

Andrew Mueller gives us a gamin-faced, thoughtful Huck with a fine tenor. As Jim, the richly voiced Brian-Alwyn Newland provides the backbone of the music, smooth and soulful, combined with a dignified stage presence that reveals the mature and feeling man behind the tattered clothes and uneducated language of the slave.

Sean Thomas makes a wicked Pap Finn, hilarious in his drunken denouncement of "Guv’ment," and a diabolical king and "Royal Nonesuch," aided by the elegant John B. Leen as the sly and histrionic duke. Courtney Crouse is boyishly mischievous as Tom Sawyer, always ready for adventure and adorable as he calls for a "Hand for the Hog."

Rashada Dawan brings a soaring voice to gospel numbers such as "How Blest We Are," and Mike Tepeli adds a comic turn as the young fool, with a zany, washboard-accompanied rendition of "Arkansas."

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th
A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

Much of the cast supplements the orchestra at different points, picking up guitars,box, or a tambourine to effectively back Musical Director Nicholas Davio playing a variety of instruments, Hilary Holbrook on fiddle and Cam McIntyre on bass. Davio and Holbrook also act small parts. Christa Buck, Anna Hammonds and James Williams fill out the ensemble.

Director P. Marston Sullivan’s deceptively simple staging and Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s stylized set put the talented cast and Twain’s potent story foremost. You don’t need to have read "Huckleberry Finn" to enjoy this musical, although everybody ought to read it … again and again.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

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Theater Wit opens smart performance space in Lakeview

Architect Richard_Kasemsarn (photo by Dick Smith) Architect Richard Kasemsarn with the plan of Theater Wit. (Photo by Dick Smith.)

 

Theater Wit: Chicago’s newest performance space opens

 

By Leah A. Zeldes

"It’s jaw-droppingly different," says Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, about his troupe’s new home.

After 16 months of a $1.3-million joists-out renovation, the one-time post office adjoining Theatre Building Chicago is now the sparkling new Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map), a dynamic new multi-performance space. The building, most recently Bailiwick Arts Centre, still has a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross before the city of Chicago grants its Public Amusements Venue license. Wechsler expects it in mid- Theater Wit lobby (photo by Joel Wanek) May; for now, Wit is running its inaugural play, Spin (our review ★★★), on a "suggested donations" basis. Valet parking isn’t in place yet, either, but for the time being, Wit has arranged free parking in the lot behind Cooper’s restaurant across the street.

The building now houses three 99-seat black-box theaters, providing a new showcase for intimate local productions.

"This is a size of theater that didn’t exist," Wechsler says. "There were (too small) 70-seat theaters, in which you could never turn a profit on a show, and (too expensive) 150-seat theaters … in which you could never turn a profit on a show. I really wanted this size of theater for myself."

Along with Wechsler’s Theater Wit company, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre and Stage Left Theatre will share the space as resident troupes, contributing work to the building and using about 75 percent of the performance time, with the remainder available for rental. In the fall, once all the theaters are up and running, Wit will introduce a flex-pass arrangement for tickets to all productions.

Architect Richard Kasemsarn explains that the theaters are cleverly separated by dressing rooms to create easy backstage access and keep sound from bleeding from one to the other. They are also insulated from exterior noise, save for occasional seepage through the brick wall from the adjoining Theatre Building. New metal joists support a variety of lighting configurations.

Theater Wit lobby (photo credit: Joel Wanek) One of the three theaters will feature flexible seating, not yet installed. Seats in the other two, salvaged from a Bolingbrook high-school auditorium, are surprisingly wide and comfortable, and they’re spaced with reasonable leg room, although their incline and offset don’t quite keep tall people from blocking your sight lines.

Theater Wit exterior (photo credit: Joel Wanek) Architectural salvage provides handsomely quirky decorative elements through the space, although you won’t mistake this for a posh downtown theater. It does retain that hand-built, slightly rough quality common to Chicago storefronts. Kasemsarn, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute, recruited students to help with the finishing.

The modest lobby features a bar, and the building has ample restrooms — a seven-stall ladies’ room should minimize lines at intermission. Oversized ductwork is intended to keep theater goers at comfortable temperatures without contributing noise.

"I really want to control everything from the time you hit that lobby door," Wechsler says.

Theater Wit architectural drawings (photo by Dick Smith)

REVIEW: Spin (Theater Wit)

Theater Wit opens new space on a dark note

 

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Theater Wit presents
 
Spin
 
By Penny Penniston
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
Thru June 5  |  Tickets: $25 (suggested donation) |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"I know you’re watching."

That phrase repeats over and over again in smart new play, Spin, as characters break the fourth wall and address the audience in a series of creepy monologues that compel us to consider life as art and everything we do as theater.

Wit_Spin_9_72dpi The solidly acted and impeccably staged world premiere by Penny Penniston, directed by her husband, Jeremy Wechsler, inaugurates Theater Wit’s terrific new Lakeview home. Theater Wit confusingly calls this somewhat murky black comedy, Penniston’s first play since the 2000 time-travel romance now then again, a "modern-day farce." It’s often funny and sometimes absurd, but don’t expect slamming doors, mixed-up bedrooms, mistaken identities or lightweight humor.

Set in a modern bachelor pad, designed by Jack Magaw, that effectively illustrates what one character describes as a "Pier One explosion," Spin follows Brent, a 40-ish advertising creative in mid-life crisis. Played by Coburn Goss in an Alan Alda-ish vein, Brent’s out of work, recently divorced and questioning the reality of his life. He also has the hots for a gorgeous, teenage homeless girl whom he’s just "rescued" from a fight with her would-be radical boyfriend.

Meanwhile, ex-colleague and old friend Redge, now heading his own agency, recruits Brent for a beer campaign. Joe Foust gives the soulless Redge just the right level of slime. They bring in self-made sports figure Ruby Jones (a cross between Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods) — the slightly stiff Austin Talley – as a spokesman, and create a campaign aimed at a demographic oddly like Brent himself. But an unfortunate viral video and Brent’s unraveling self-image intervene.

The murkiness comes in most strongly with the troubling Lolita-like character of the homeless teenager, Danielle. Is she opportunistic or exploited? Alice Wedoff’s diffident portrayal leaves us guessing, and the role just gets ickier as the play progresses.

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Danielle’s boyfriend, Aaron (played with puppyish avidity by Michael Kessler) relies on her to feed his ego. Brent deludes himself into thinking she’s 19, when she’s really much younger. Redge takes out-and-out advantage.

She adds little to the play’s themes other than shock factor, though, and it would be a far funnier comedy without her, and particularly without her Act II monologue. Although they address interesting concepts, the introspective monologues obscure the humor generally — and sometimes feel like add-ons meant to stretch a one-act play into a full-length show.

Yet when the dialogue pokes fun at modern memes and 21st-century life, this comedy shines. Lance Baker’s wonderfully understated performance as Jack, a dry-witted account executive offhandedly commenting on the action, forms the highlight of the play. Elements like these overcome the tired tropes of crazy creative, materialistic ad man, impractical idealist and avaricious slut, and make Spin well worth watching.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Theater Thursday: Spin (Theater Wit)

Thursday, May 6th

Spin by Penny Penniston

Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago

spinCome check out Chicago’s newest performance facility. Theater Wit will be offering backstage tours of their new home from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., followed by a performance of Penny Penniston‘s remarkable new comedy, Spin. Complimentary snacks and coffee post show, as well as additional tours of the new three-theater performance facility will be provided by Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler. When Brent loses his high paying job as an art director for a big name advertising firm and goes through a divorce, he falls back on his Plan B, resolving to remake himself. With a host of good intentions and self-help books about Buddhism he takes in a street kid and renounces worldly possessions. But when tempted with prestige and cash by an old advertising buddy, he sells his life over to a beer company. Literally. When his best intentions bring him to a couch, a bomb, a celebrity hostage and the contempt of his co-workers and girlfriend, some serious self-examination is in order.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.

Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $25 

For reservations call 773.975.8150 and mention "Theater Thursdays."