First Floor Theater's American Hero Credit: Ian McLaren

American Hero Bess Wohl came up with a delicious premise for her 2014 comedy: abandoned by their bosses almost as soon as they’re hired, three bewildered would-be “sandwich artists” go rogue, banding together to keep their submarine franchise open. The result might’ve been anything from a blue-collar farce or a corporate satire to a kind of fast-food version of Sartre’s No Exit. But while Wohl has the wit to keep things amusing in the short run, she never gives us a good reason to think the trio are anything but stupid for holding on. Lacking internal logic, unlikely developments come across as off-putting rather than exhilarating. Although Cody Estle’s staging for First Floor Theater doesn’t supply what’s missing, it does offer one consolation: Saraí Rodriguez’s droll performance as sleepy, surprising sub-maker Sheri. —Tony Adler

Black Ensemble Theater's <i>Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker</i>
Black Ensemble Theater’s Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine BakerCredit: Michael Courier

[Recommended] Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker To say that Josephine Baker’s life was unconventional would be a gross understatement. Baker, the daughter of a poor, working-class family in Saint Louis, found fame and fortune as an entertainer in France during the 1920s, eventually ascending to international superstardom. But that may have been the least of her accomplishments, as this moving Black Ensemble Theater portrait shows. In it, Baker (terrific performances from Joan Ruffin and Aeriel Williams as the older and younger Josephine, respectively) chronicles her life from childhood, pointing to a few choice accomplishments along the way, among them her championing the integration of segregated theaters in the U.S. and spying for the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. While not everything comes into full view—her 12 adopted children, for one—the play is a thoroughly compelling portrait of Baker and her remarkable place in history. —Matt de la Peña

Piven Theatre's <i>Dance for Beginners</i>
Piven Theatre’s Dance for BeginnersCredit: Zachera Wollenberg

Dance for Beginners Judging from the title, you might think that playwright MT Cozzola’s world premiere is bound for cheeseville, yet this tidy production from Piven Theatre Workshop (developed in part with Chicago Dramatists) puts forth some genuinely thoughtful observations about age, love, and the obstacles of dating in the digital world. Short and sweet, the story follows late-middle-aged Jerry and Jenni (Dev Kennedy and Laurie Larson), a virtual couple living on opposite ends of the globe. To overcome the distance between them and try to establish a bond stronger than a wireless connection, they enter a dance competition in a neutral location where they finally have an opportunity to meet face-to-face. What’s best: Cozzola’s plot never comes across as far-fetched or improbable. It’s no Sleepless in Seattle, but it does the trick. —Matt de la Peña

Trap Door Theatre's <i>Into the Empty Sky</i>
Trap Door Theatre’s Into the Empty SkyCredit: Beata Pilch

[Recommended] Into the Empty Sky Six nameless barefoot women lugging beat-up suitcases are trapped in a minelike purgatory with nothing to comfort them but their memories in this dramatization of Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poems. Each woman longs to break out of this nonplace but seems unable to leave for long (not even after running out of the exit leading to the alley behind the theater at one point). Their literal and figurative baggage won’t let them be. The language is spare and almost skeletal, but the women’s acting humanizes their struggle. Through repetitive phrases and gestures, dramatic light design, and accordion and metronome music played by composer Mike Mazzocca while perched above the stage, this show casts a spell which lingers long after one leaves that bare, woebegone room. Devised and directed by Monica Payne.
—Dmitry Samarov

Chicago Theatre Workshop's <i>Little Miss Sunshine</i>
Chicago Theatre Workshop’s Little Miss SunshineCredit: Joel Maisonet

Little Miss Sunshine Adapted from the quirky 2006 serio-comic road film, this 2013 musical is a rough ride, with an uneven score by William Finn and a sometimes awkward book by James Lapine that doesn’t always capitalize on the strengths of Michael Arndt’s original script, namely, its offbeat characters and witty dialogue. The musical does have its strengths—Lapine and Finn are masters at finding bittersweet comedy in life’s setbacks—and Chicago Theatre Workshop’s low-budget production, directed by Maggie Portman, plays to them, at least most of the time. Robert Groth and Jennifer Thusing’s bare-bones set is more functional than attractive, but the performances are strong across the board; George Keating and Sophie Kaegi are especially charming as suicidal Uncle Frank (played in the movie by Steve Carell) and sassy would-be Little Miss Sunshine, respectively. —Jack Helbig

One on One Chicago's <i>The Outpost</i>
One on One Chicago’s The OutpostCredit: Kelly Schmidt

[Recommended] The Outpost Squirreled away in a converted shipping container with some ecology textbooks, scientific treatises, handwritten maps, and old LPs, an agitated Andrew Lund tries to manufacture solace in isolation. He’s discovered a plant that dances in the sun, expressing the kind of involuntary freedom he desperately wants—even while he seems incapable of simply opening the door of his self-imposed prison and leaving. This premiere from One on One Chicago, in which one performer and one audience member huddle together for 15 minutes, is full of evocative ideas and cryptic messages about faith, science, nature, and purpose. Although the piece might resonate more strongly if Lund allowed for more spontaneous interaction with his spectator, both the performance and the highly manipulated physical space continually provoke the imagination. —Justin Hayford

Spartan Theatre Company's <i>Seminar</i>
Spartan Theatre Company’s SeminarCredit: Amanda de la Guarida

Seminar Setting aside the question whether genius can be taught, or whether writing fiction is the kind of thing that one should pay $2,500 a week to learn how to do passably, Leonard (Robert Koon), the writing instructor in Theresa Rebeck’s one-act comedy, is a creep and a charlatan. Nevertheless his students—four impressionable tyros with varying degrees of skill, charm, and audacity—believe that their success as artists hinges on Leonard’s approval and advice. And he’s a great one for hurling unread pages across the carpet after a bad first sentence and for bedding female students. What humor there is here comes almost entirely at the expense of a process, the “seminar,” and its attendant way of thinking about art and artists, which is made to seem transparently exploitative and grotesque. —Max Maller

Refuge Theatre Project's <i>Things to Ruin</i>
Refuge Theatre Project’s Things to RuinCredit: Zeke Dolezalek

Things to Ruin The upstairs room at the club Exit Chicago is all crumbling stucco and corrugated sheet metal, with a swinging chain-link fence down the middle of it in front of the riser. It’s a lovely place to do a play, especially one set inside a bar—at least if you ask the good people of Refuge Theatre Project. This show is essentially a concert of songs by Joe Iconis, its aim to emphasize that modern existence is unhappy and full of pain (“When I am bleeding,” Kedgrick Pullums Jr. croons, “I’m alive”), but also that it helps if you can sing, dance, and drink whiskey with friends while trying to endure it. There’s not much in the way of plot, but this ensemble of nighthawks grows on you in the end. —Max Maller

AstonRep Theatre Company's <i>Time Stands Still</i>
AstonRep Theatre Company’s Time Stands StillCredit: Emily Schwartz

Time Stands Still It seems downright bonkers that a play written only seven years ago could aptly be described as a period piece, but so goes the last roller-coaster decade in journalism and foreign affairs reporting. Donald Margulies’s 2010 drama provides a snapshot of a time before camera-phone images of atrocities abroad were seared into the public consciousness in an endless feed, when magazine editors’ biggest gripes included fighting for four pages of conflict coverage. In recovery from an IED attack, Sarah, a photojournalist, struggles to regain a sense of normalcy with her longtime creative and romantic partner, James. Georgette Verdin’s modestly designed AstonRep production strips some of the affluence that informs Margulies’s elite characters, and much of the act-one comedy feels underattended. At the play’s emotional heights, though, leads Sara Pavlak McGuire and Robert Tobin generate undeniable tension. —Dan Jakes

EbonyEssenceJet's <i>Waiting to Inhale</i>, at Under the Gun Theater
EbonyEssenceJet’s Waiting to Inhale, at Under the Gun TheaterCredit: Ashley Bland

Waiting to Inhale All-black, all-female four-person troupe EbonyEssenceJet devise this long-form set at Under the Gun inspired by loose chats with audience members. At the performance I attended, the straightforward suggestions of “bachelor party” and “bowling alley” took a while to get rolling, with most of the ensemble lined up against a wall waiting for someone to steer. Eventually, however, the cast members flexed their creative muscles individually, demonstrating solid instincts even if the group communication never quite gelled. One element that could go: downer prerecorded radio DJ bits that cast a pall over the brighter scenes proceeding them. —Dan Jakes

Correction: The review of Time Stands Still has been amended to correctly reflect the name of the actor who plays the male lead. It is Robert Tobin, not Rob Frankel.