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Celebrating nearly 35 years in their factory space around the North Center neighborhood, American Theater Company has a knack for taking risks on new works. “Welcome to Jesus” is prefaced with a recorded curtain speech by artistic director Will Davis, “It’s our responsibility to take risks.” And that is absolutely true. At no other company in town are you more likely to see a smash hit first production right before it becomes a Pulitzer finalist.

“Welcome to Jesus” is not one of those gems. This new play by Janine Nabers is likely to land among the annals of forgotten plays, but good for ATC for taking a chance. Under the direction of Will Davis, this world premiere is certainly provocative but begs the question, is this the best way to make the playwright’s point?

“Welcome to Jesus” is about a small Texan town obsessed with high school football and wholesome, Christian values. When two bumbling, and related, cops come across the zombie-fied head football coach with a dead body in the woods, the play takes on a racist-flavored B-horror movie feel.

The point that Nabors spends two short acts exploring is what it’s like for people of color in Christian, white dominated places. It’s also a commentary on how the professional sports industry uses up athletes while skirting the issue of racism. In that regard, Nabors’ script is very topical. The problem is that her thesis is obscured by supernatural plot points which ultimately have no resolution or bearing on the conclusion.

Will Davis’ direction is a little strange, but the performances are strong. A little too often the audience is subjected to blinding light and expected to participate. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if an audience can’t connect with the work, this gimmick is bound to be awkward.

“Welcome to Jesus” has something to say, but whatever it is, isn’t quite there yet. The important thing is that a successful theater company saw a play with a contentious message and gave it a chance. Nabors would be best to revise her well-meaning script so that it’s more like a play and less like a Netflix pilot.

Through December 3rd at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 19 November 2015 21:15

Review: Fulfillment at American Theatre Company

Sex sells as the old adage goes. It may be marketable, but you have to ask yourself what it has to say. Likely sex will dominate the discussion among patrons of Thomas Bradshaw's new play at American Theater Company. With bold direction by Ethan McSweeney, Fulfillment will undoubtedly ruffle some subscriber feathers. 

 

The play begins with Michael (Stephen Conrad Moore) purchasing a multi-million dollar apartment in Soho and describing his sexual relationship with his coworker, Sarah (Erin Barlow). She soon puts the idea in his head that he isn't being made partner at the law firm because of his race. Whether it's true or not becomes subject to interpretation as the rest of Michael's life begins to spiral out of control. 

 

Bradshaw's script is flawed in that it's not enough about any one thing to really grasp at a central narrative or question. If it's a play about the inequality of underrepresented groups (African Americans and women) it never really connects the dots in the way that say, Disgraced does. If it's a play about American desire for more and more, why isn't the main character greedier? 

 

The scenes are too copious and too short to get down to anything significant. In fact, there's never really any rational conflict between characters, or at least none that lead to anything consequential. More often it's a story about a man who has trouble with his neighbor and the occasional drinking binge. The unfortunate part is that the dialog is actually really strong and incredibly well-acted, but in the end, it doesn't really add up to much. 

 

Perhaps even more distracting are the numerous instances of gratuitous stage sex and full frontal nudity that cross the line of good taste. It seems to be an overused, if not unnecessary, gimmick on which this play too heavily relies. Maybe if the material was edgy enough to justify the graphic content, it would seem more vital. Mostly it just comes off as a desperate attempt to shock audiences. 

 

Through December 13th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 

 

 

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Tuesday, 24 February 2015 00:00

The Royale at American Theatre Company

American Theatre Company and veteran TV writer Marco Ramirez collaborate to bring this boxing drama to life. Loosely inspired by the real life of Jack Johnson, 'The Royale' tells the story of a young African American heavyweight champ, Jay Jackson, and his rise to fame for usurping a title from the standing white champion. Set against the backdrop of the turn-of-the-century Jim Crow era South, we’re shown a world in which fame can transcend political boundaries, or at least provide the illusion of such.

'The Royale' stars Jerod Haynes as Jay, the fast-talking fighter who brings a unique clarity to the mindset of a character who would likely be pretty punchy after fifteen years of professional boxing. We meet Jay in the spotlight of the ring in a fight against his soon-to-be sparring partner Fish (Julian Parker). Parker's subtle performance is an unexpected gem in this slightly overwrought drama. The eleven o'clock performance in this short-lived epic is that of Mildred Langford in the role of Nina, Jay's sister who comes to warn him about the potential race war his win could cause.

The major issue plaguing this play is not the fascinating direction by Jaime Castaneda nor the incredible sets designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge. What this script suffers from is brevity. A troubling new trend in playwriting, perhaps borrowed from TV writing, is the 90 minute drama. It works when the script can fill the entire hour and a half block, but when it cuts closer to 70 minutes, it makes it nearly impossible for an audience to invest.

Still, despite the length of this new play, Ramirez's succinctness tells a complete story, however brief. The achievement is to tell such a short story without sacrificing depth, of which there is plenty here.

The Royale at American Theatre Company. 1909 West Byron Street. (773) 409-4125. Through March 29th

*-Jerod Haynes as Jay in Chicago premiere of The Royale at American Theater Company. Photo by Michael Brosilow

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