Shortly after Kevin Crowley arrived in Chicago on August 19, he called his friend Anna Bahow to check in. Bahow was set to direct the world premiere of Crowley’s play Disgruntled Employees with Terrapin Theatre this fall, and rehearsals were scheduled to start that night. Bahow had to tell Crowley the news she’d just learned herself–that Terrapin artistic director Brad Nelson Winters had been found murdered in his apartment earlier that day. “It was horrific,” says the 43-year-old Crowley. “If I could have gotten a flight out that night I would have left, because my first instinct was to go home and hug my children.” Instead, he flew home to Los Angeles the next day. As for the production? “I didn’t think it was going to happen at all.”

A decade ago, Crowley was one of Chicago’s busiest young performers. Tall and lanky, he presented the image of a “likable everyman,” as Reader critic Lawrence Bommer once described him. But underneath that facade lay a darkly ironic streak that led another Reader reviewer, Jack Helbig, to call him “a seasoned, subtle, sophisticated comic actor.” After arriving in Chicago from Virginia in 1982, he appeared in dramas at Steppenwolf and Northlight, and in comedy revues with Second City, White Noise, Wavelength, and the Usual Suspects, who performed on WXRT. The program featured a running gag in which Crowley played the president of the Bob Greene fan club.

But though he quickly became known as a performer, Crowley considered himself principally a writer. “I don’t think I’m the best improviser in the world. I have a writer’s head,” he says. “When I go onstage I know where I want everything to go.” In the 1992 Second City E.T.C. hit Earth on a Platter, he starred in his own script about an inept monologuist whose one-man show careens into absurdist nightmare.

In 1994 Crowley headed to Los Angeles with his wife, Lucianne. He’d racked up some film credits in Chicago, with minor parts in Major League and the 1989 Gene Hackman/Tommy Lee Jones thriller The Package, and started traveling to LA in 1990 to try to land a TV gig. “I came out every pilot season,” he says, “but I wasn’t going to move to California till I was in a show that actually got picked up. Finally, after about four years, I got one.” The series was The Boys Are Back, about a young man who moves back home with his parents; Crowley costarred with Hal Linden and Suzanne Pleshette.

The series tanked, but the Crowleys and their two children stayed out west. Lucianne enrolled at UCLA to study interior design; Crowley, while continuing to make a living as an actor, signed up for a couple classes in playwriting. Disgruntled Employees, which originated as a classroom exercise, is his first full-length script. A “very dark comedy” about a hostage crisis in a post office, the play was workshopped in 1997 at the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Shortly after that Crowley started sending it out to producers. “Several other theaters flirted with doing it, but I ended up with a drawer of nice rejection letters,” says Crowley. But when Bahow, who was shopping it around Chicago on Crowley’s behalf, showed it to Winters, he was taken with the script and agreed to stage it here. Bahow signed on as director, and Winters was cast in a supporting role.

After Winters was killed, many company members felt that continuing with the play would be inappropriate, given its dark nature and violent ending. But then, says Crowley, they remembered that Winters had been drawn to the script by its humor. “My initial instinct was that they should pull it,” says Crowley. “But they decided to go on, because they felt that the best way to honor Brad was to do the play.”

Disgruntled Employees opens Saturday, October 25, in the first-floor studio of the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets range from $13 to $16, $10 for students and seniors; call 312-902-1500.

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