Chicago actor Kareem Bandealy is a busy man, with a bio packed with A-list acting gigs at, among other places, the Goodman, Court Theatre, Writers Theatre, and, of course, Lookingglass, where he’s an ensemble member. Still, somehow, he found time to write a play. And get it produced, at Lookingglass. And now it’s being reviewed, by me.
Watching the world premiere, directed by Heidi Stillman, it’s hard not to wish Bandealy had spent more time writing—or more time deciding what he wanted to write about—before leaping into a full production. The play as it stands now feels more like a loose collection of theatrical ideas, theological jokes, and cleverly written scenes than an actual play with a compelling reason to exist beyond the need to fill a slot in the season.
Set in the near future, in 2029, in an isolated suburban home in the desert, the action concerns an upper-class family that might have been lifted from a play by Edward Albee: a regret-filled middle-aged mother; her passive, ineffectual husband; and their three disappointing adult children. Except that Albee was a much angrier and sharper writer. Having summoned up these people in this world, Bandealy doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Or why they are there.
Part of the problem is that Bandealy sets out to do too much. He tries to use a familiar genre, the estranged-family drama, to go after the biggest existential issues we human beings face: mortality, God, our place in the universe. But he doesn’t deliver. Instead he teases us, promising that in the next scene or the next act, this will all add up to something. And then it doesn’t.
Of course, this has been done before—and better (see Waiting for Godot). Bandealy gives us a lighter version of theater of the absurd: milder, sweeter, and stripped of its anger and conviction and passion. Instead of staring into the void or raging at the dying of the light, Bandealy mocks an old man for chattering on about how much he likes fruit and allots nearly a third of the play to a discussion of a character sleeping in the next room whom we never meet but who may or may not be God.
Bandealy’s brand of absurdism is not an expression of frustration at having been thrown into an absurd world. Instead this is a play about the myriad petty annoyances of life, a theme better suited for a stand-up routine or a half-hour sitcom episode.
Still, the folks at Lookingglass, led by director Stillman, throw everything at their disposal to create a pleasant evening of theater—and they do have an impressive arsenal of theatrical tricks and devices. The cast is first-rate, especially Shannon Cochran as the family’s rightfully angry matriarch. Stillman’s production unfolds at just the right pace to keep an audience amused—provided they don’t think about what they’re watching or see how shallow and unsubstantial this all is. v