The Earl

A Red Orchid Theatre

It’s not unusual for a theater to stack the deck on opening night, filling seats with friends and supporters whose exuberance might impress critics. Such rowdiness can help compensate for a scarcity of ideas. But A Red Orchid has earned a reputation for seriousness and intensity, and playwright Brett Neveu for taut scripts that tunnel into the psyche’s darkest, most disturbing recesses. Yet at Neveu’s new The Earl, A Red Orchid’s first late-night show in its 13 years, a liquored-up audience was whooping with frat-party abandon–“Earrrrrrl!”–before the show even started, and continued right up to the end of this big, broad, blood-soaked production.

Apparently they were trying to prove the press release right: it describes The Earl as a “high-octane, rock ‘n’ roll, in-your-face, on the edge, hilarious, over the top, ass-kicking experience.” But though making Neveu’s hour-long play dude friendly may attract certain audiences, it also cheapens the experience of this surreal, profoundly unsettling one-act. The play centers on three brothers in their mid-20s who regularly play a savage ritualistic game in an abandoned office where they’ve hidden odd weapons–a cup of hot coffee, four darts. The only weapon out in the open is a crowbar, which the men regularly bring crashing down on one another. The game’s arcane rules are geared to maximize injury, yet it’s played with adolescent glee, as though gaping wounds were stick-on tattoos.

Rick, the youngest brother, is returning home for his first visit since moving to Los Angeles three years earlier, and older brothers Peter and Kent–resentful of his escape from their troubled family–quickly hobble him as the game begins. But Rick has brought a powerful ally, introduced later in the game: Mr. Stephens, a famous B-movie actor who’s gotten rich making the kind of violent films the game emulates. When he arrives halfway through the play, the real man behind the action hero starts inflicting real violence on men whose own brutal acts have become a kind of fantasy. It’s clear Mr. Stephens can’t separate his Hollywood persona from his real self–more than once he delivers a monologue from one of his movies–further blurring the line between truth and fiction.

Neveu’s dialogue–which combines Pinter’s oblique menace with Shepard’s culturally charged hallucinations–might have generated a chilling humor if the actors had dug into it. But director Lance Baker steers his cast around the text, forcing them into a world of high-octane, rock ‘n’ roll, in-your-face, on-the-edge, hilarious, over-the-top, ass-kicking laughs. This ramped-up staging, which opens with raging guitar chords and flashing black lights, flattens the play’s first half by largely ignoring its real guts: the brothers’ complex psychology. There are no stakes in a rowdy goof with no tangible threat. Once Mr. Stephens arrives, the production takes a more serious and satisfying turn.

At its inaugural reading three years ago, The Earl was declared too strange ever to be produced, and maybe Neveu lost some faith in his script. But someone should go to bat for this provocative work. It deserves a more careful staging, though at least it’s seen the light of day–or late night.

When: Open run: Fri-Sat 11 PM

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Price: $10

Info: 312-943-8722

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brant Russel.