When he was nine years old, John Chapman put together a list of life objectives, complete with deadlines for reaching them, and kept it folded up in his wallet from that moment on. By the age of 21, in 1995, he was knocking off items left and right—and on time, too. High school class valedictorian? Check. Class valedictorian at the University of Chicago? Done. Marriage? In the works, with longtime sweetheart Katie. A mergers-and-acquisitions job at Goldman Sachs (because, after all, they’re the biggest bankers in the world)? The interview is set for tomorrow morning, he tells us during the graduation speech that opens Andrew Hinderaker’s beautifully wrought new play, I Am Going to Change the World.
Given his record to that point, it doesn’t seem out of the question to John that he’ll be able to manage the rest of his goals—including his rise to the corporate pinnacle at Goldman Sachs and his purchase of what was then called Sears Tower, so that he can ensconce his parents in the penthouse there. John’s UC valediction is all about the virtues of overweening ambition. A dream is only dream until you live it, he says, so dream big. Never mind that pious crap about life being worthwhile if you can help just one other person. Plan on helping thousands. Hundreds of thousands. If, say, you’re going to be a doctor, then don’t just see patients. Cure cancer. That’s the sort of thinking that got John to the top of his class, and he’s damned if it won’t take him on to still greater glories.
Plays being what they are, of course, he’s damned. Exactly what form his damnation takes is Hinderaker’s first surprise, so you’ll want to be careful about reading on if you’re worried that the disclosure is going to ruin things for you. Still with me? It’s this: the Goldman Sachs interview didn’t go as planned, and John didn’t get the job. Thrown off the schedule on which he’d structured his life, built his identity, and even based his moral universe, he had a breakdown that led to a suicide attempt—in front of the Chicago offices of Goldman Sachs, no less. Now he’s 35 years old, living in agony from having broken his back in the suicide attempt and sleeping in the basement of his parents’ shoebox house in Gary. Katie’s long gone; his only dates are with his therapist. He works for Troy, an IT geek with a nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome, typing in code as Troy dictates it to him. They’re also each other’s best and only friends, after Percocet.
And one thing more: John is prone to a kind of fugue state called an “anniversary reaction,” during which the 14 years since his graduation simply vanish, and he’s his grandiose 21-year-old self again. We first find out about that condition when he shows up at Goldman Sachs, thinking he’s due for the interview he already had.
There seems to be a speculative edge to Hinderaker’s writing. In 2010 the Gift Theatre premiered his Suicide, Incorporated, which posited a start-up business dedicated to providing artful letters of farewell for those who wanted to kill themselves with a literary flourish. I Am Going to Change the World carries a whiff of The Twilight Zone, too, what with the business about the anniversary reaction. Hinderaker might’ve allowed the play to subside into genre cliches out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or even the Hulk, who also has his bouts of amnesia. But in Jonathan Berry‘s intensely humane production for Chicago Dramatists, the play opens out instead, resonating with implications concerning the chew-’em-up, spit-’em-out imperatives of American capitalism—from the destruction of communities like Gary (and people like John’s parents) when they lose their industrial anchor to the mania for achievement in an increasingly stratified nation where if you don’t have it all you can’t have enough.
Still, a great part of the fascination here is psychological. The obsessive aspect of childhood is often ignored in art, but the fact is that kids can fetishize the darnedest things. Hinderaker brings that out neatly in his treatment of John’s list and the ways in which it stunts his growth, condemning him to remain at an emotional age of nine.
Pasty-faced and angry, Nicholas Harazin does an excellent job of embodying John’s stasis. And as his shell-shocked, utterly believable parents, Meg Thalkin and Norm Woodel help reflect it out to us. Ed Flynn is a great, sweet oaf as Troy, stunted and disabled in his own, complementary ways. Though her role is rather patly written, Judy Blue makes a textured character of John’s therapist. In fact, about the only thing that’s a real problem in this show is Collette Pollard’s set, which puts a door lintel right where it will get in your sight line if you happen to be sitting on the audience-right side of the theater.