Shattered Globe Theatre

You can sing Mozart without knowing the language and still taste the feeling in the notes. That fusion of form and content is rare in theater; when it happens it’s because a script has so much innate energy that producing it simply releases a self-sustaining story-telling power. Give that play a charged and sympathetic staging–as director Dan Torbica does Frozen Assets–and you’ve got a theatrical roller coaster. Like Bouncers, which it resembles not just in its generous survey of English life but in its relentless momentum, Frozen Assets is a rich, wild ride. And Shattered Globe Theatre’s local premiere barely hits a bump.

Barrie Keeffe’s work was commissioned in 1978 by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Given Keeffe’s economical writing and wide range of characters, that company got a big return on its investment.

The main–and most moving–character is 17-year-old Buddy Clark. The play, ironically set at Christmastime, traces one furious day when Buddy, who’s been thrown into Borstal (boys’ prison) for stealing a car on orders from a larcenous relative, accidentally kills a prison guard, panics, and scales the wall. His breakout sets in motion a picaresque chain of events full of telling coincidences and symbolic encounters worthy of Dickens–there’s even an all-connecting subplot involving buried jewelry.

Buddy–now suffering from a painful toothache–returns to his squalid East End neighborhood and asks for help from a crazy aunt who runs an auto junkyard. She sends him to his hard-drinking, sad-faced sister Pam and her husband Ronnie, a predatory thug who’ll have nothing to do with his nephew when he learns that Buddy killed a “screw.”

The runaway then turns to a wealthy dame who mistakes him for an auto mechanic, but she too boots him out–miffed by his naive rage over how much money she has. Further fueling Buddy’s desperation is a visit to his dying mother, where he misconstrues a priest’s attempt to help him and again runs off.

Homeless Sammy, an eccentric ex- boxer who sees in the boy “old eyes in a child’s face,” introduces him to Lord Plaistow, an equally dotty working-class politician who, though now corrupted by an elevation to the peerage, still laments the economic devastation that afflicts Buddy’s dockside neighborhood. Buddy also receives some patronizing Christmas charity from an unctuous Laborite couple, but their liberal condescension freezes when they learn the boy is on the lam. Finally a samaritan dentist and the feisty ex-boxer help this British Huck Finn to light out for new territory.

Though the ending is abrupt considering the excitement that precedes it (Dickens would have wrapped things up more neatly), Frozen Assets is full of solid stagecraft. Keeffe skillfully interweaves the paths of the many characters (several of whom also confess, quite naturally, their secret hopes) and makes them reveal their souls by their reactions to Buddy. The play also shows a deep compassion for its displaced persons (much like Road and the film Life Is Sweet).

Driven by a Sex Pistols sound track and illustrated by depressing projections of London tenements, Torbica’s staging is taut, well cast, and well felt (and the accents are accurate–crucial to class distinctions). Carrying the play like a junior Atlas is Nicholas Cross Wodtke, whose endangered Buddy is a scary mix of battered innocence and combustible resentment. Gradually Wodtke’s remarkable road warrior begins to see the idiotic unfairness behind his endless crisis; it’s fascinating to see him get political to survive.

Torbica’s 14-member ensemble (3 of whom are British-born) is one of those selfless non-Equity treasure troupes, like the casts of Barto Productions’ Under Milk Wood and Cactus Theatre’s Hurlyburly–the kind that make Chicago theatergoing rewarding. You can savor Eileen Niccolai’s achingly honest performance as Buddy’s stepped-on sister, Brian Pudil’s as her rancid spouse, Jordan Teplitz’s as the sodden lord who dresses like Santa and sounds like Brecht, and Karen Hammer’s as the antiseptic, appalled rich lady.

A decade ago I proposed a play contest to be called the “Ten-Minute Saga.” The title refers to the time it takes an ICBM to reach an American city; the contest’s necessarily short plays would try to make sense of the impending horror, even explore ways to die with dignity or at least protest the insane folly. But producers found the project morbid, so I nuclear-froze it.

Fortunately, however, the winning play just surfaced–The Ground Zero Club, a late-night Shattered Globe offering that follows Frozen Assets on Fridays and Saturdays. Written in 1985 by 18-year-old Charlie Schulman for Playwrights’ Horizons’ young writers’ festival in New York, this raw and incongruously hilarious one-act assembles a bunch of oddballs on the Empire State Building’s observation deck, where they hope to see our own big bang.

When a Russian missile is only minutes away, it can concentrate the mind extraordinarily (to borrow from Samuel Johnson on hangings). Awaiting doomsday are a mute tourist who persistently drops quarters into his telescope and a security guard who launches a romance with the antinuke protester who’s arrived to say “I told you so.” A feuding punk rocker and his girlfriend decide this is a good time to break up. Completing the cross section are a bored rich couple: she’s suicidal, he’s a bewildered honcho from the Pentagon.

Schulman chronicles this involuntary meeting of the “Ground Zero Club” in 25 pretty funny minutes. It’s not nearly as grim as it sounds–besides, as George M. Cohan said, “Always leave ’em laughing when you say good-bye.” Joe Forbrich’s seven cast members hurl themselves into these stereotypes, capturing all the freshness of the writing.