Curious Theatre Branch

David Mamet once described theater as an expression of the nation’s dream life, adding that the best theater always contains something mysterious and irrational. In an era dominated by realism, most contemporary American playwrights–including Mamet–never come close to realizing the richness and power of dreams, so concerned are they with accurately re-creating the mundane details of our waking lives. This desiccated literalism is all the more deadly in Chicago, where dozens of new theaters every year seem to believe they can become the next Steppenwolf by imitating Steppenwolf’s naturalistic acting.

So a play like Beau O’Reilly’s dark comedy Evil Triggers Down Amateur Street is refreshing. This antirealistic play foils every attempt to take it as a mirror held up to the world. True, O’Reilly does start out with a framework that could have been lifted from any odd B movie or Mamet play: a pair of petty con men, Jack Sugar and Arson Fix, set about gathering the personnel and know-how to pull off “the big grab”–kidnapping Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. However, no sooner does O’Reilly set this story in motion–Sugar hires a young apprentice and begins teaching him how to become a master grifter–than he abandons it. The last half of the play shows what happens when the four odd characters in Sugar’s “gang” are cooped up together in his hideout.

O’Reilly further undercuts the realistic plot by having characters speak a kind of poetry reminiscent of film noir tough-guy talk: “The crowd was all red eyes on red necks,” Arson Fix says at one point. O’Reilly also disrupts the play’s serious tone with moments of absurd comedy, such as the revelation that Sugar’s hideout is really a tree house. “This isn’t a house, this is a fort!” says apprentice con Max when he first sees Sugar’s place. And Sugar and Fix have continual nonsensical arguments over which Stone was better, Jagger or Richards.

In lieu of realism, O’Reilly is after a rich, multilayered work having more in common with Thomas Pynchon than David Mamet. Certainly O’Reilly shares Pynchon’s penchant for obscure references and in-jokes. Several of Sugar’s lines, for example, are quotations from Stones songs: “I was born in a cross-fire hurricane.” And the program credits direction of Evil Triggers to Nanker Phelge, the pseudonym under which the Stones wrote “Play With Fire,” among other songs. Like Pynchon, O’Reilly enriches his text with parodies–of beat poetry, of film noir, of British comedies, like The Lavender Hill Mob and the more recent A Fish Called Wanda, in which a gang of incompetent crooks attempt a ridiculously difficult caper. As a result, O’Reilly creates a work that is at once entertaining and replete with references to cultural icons and Christian and pagan mysticism. (One could even interpret the story of Fix and Sugar as the story of the two thieves crucified alongside Christ.)

Unlike Pynchon, however, O’Reilly can count on the work of the Curious Theatre Branch, with its accomplished if eccentric performers, to further deepen his material. Jenny Magnus is particularly notable as Sugar’s pyromaniacal partner, Arson Fix, whom she plays with such smoldering intensity she seems at any moment ready to burst into flames herself. Quite a departure, both from the wimpy sad sack she played in Looking Through Two Johnnies and from her bohemian honor-student persona in Maestro Subgum and the Whole.

O’Reilly’s portrayal of Jack Sugar is also something of a departure for him, an actor/playwright who in past shows (Endgame and Looking Through Two Johnnies) has seemed content to play variations on Lefty Fizzle, his character when he leads Maestro Subgum. Sugar is far too crazed and unlikable ever to be confused with the essentially likable, if a bit lascivious, Fizzle. Anita Stenger delivers a performance to be proud of as bisexual free spirit Amanda Dupuy, who loves both Fix and Sugar.

In fact, there’s not an off-mark performance in the show–quite an accomplishment when you realize that Evil Triggers was directed by committee, following the technique developed by Theatre Oobleck.

Evil Triggers is not a production that will appeal to everyone. Those who expect to get their theater straight will find this play particularly frustrating. Those willing to accept the play’s decidedly antirealistic conventions, however, will discover in Evil Triggers the sort of dreamworld that reflects a nation’s fears and wishes much more accurately than any bit of real life tossed squirming onto the stage.