Curious Theatre Branch

Imagine yourself a theatrical producer searching for hot new Chicago talent. You’ve heard of this Beau O’Reilly character and his cohorts at the Curious Theatre Branch: they have a reputation for crossing boundaries, experimenting with forms–you know, arty stuff, the kind you’d like your name associated with. Given the right marketing campaign, a few haircuts, and an iron and ironing board, you could turn this group into something the whole family might enjoy. You do lunch with O’Reilly and ask him what he’s working on.

“I’ve got a play about a group of incompetent professional movers,” he tells you.

You sip your San Pellegrino and try to maintain a neutral expression. “And what do these movers do?”

“Well, they try to move people, but like I said, they’re incompetent. And they’re late most times. So I guess they really don’t move people that much.”

“And the set?”

“Hundreds of cardboard boxes.”


“Floor to ceiling.”

“Cardboard. Interesting.” You signal the waiter for the check. “And the play . . . what happens?”

O’Reilly, sensing your distress, begins to falter. “Well . . . they talk about moving, and . . . they have dolly races.”

Thankfully O’Reilly has never had to pitch his inexplicable Let the Dolly Do the Work to anyone except his colleagues at Curious Theatre Branch. Yet he’s taken this seemingly insipid premise and constructed an adventure of giddy theatrical heights. Though Dolly is a bit unbalanced–the first act is much stronger than the second–the extraordinary cast deliver virtuoso performances start to finish.

The play does not have a plot per se but rather an initiating incident followed by an endless series of complications. Out-of-work Dwight (Paul Leison) stumbles upon the office of Starving Student Movers and is immediately offered a job by the skittish, painfully indecisive owner, Guy (Ben Rayner). Dwight’s coworkers–hippie leftover Wood (Michael Martin), musclehead Dude (Mark Hanks), and spaced-out loafer Bump-It-Down John (Paul Tamney)–put the new recruit through the ringer, lashing him to a dolly and wheeling him around the room, all the while taunting him with such historical “facts” as Eisenhower’s liking for golden showers. Soon they’re off to move their first celebrity client, Mrs. Walter Jacobson (Marianne Fieber). This, pretty much, is the first act.

What drives the play is not the story but the unexpected collisions between all these mismatched sensibilities. Wood, Dude, and John move at completely different paces and concern themselves with everything but their jobs, causing minor explosions every few minutes. Through it all, Dwight (renamed “Ike” by his coworkers) attempts to negotiate a course that will prevent him from offending anyone: he tries never to take sides in any dispute, a hilariously impossible task.

O’Reilly’s drama is full of seeming contradictions: the character least likely to do something is always the one who ultimately does it, and convincingly at that. Lunkhead Dude, for example, quotes Buckminster Fuller and ancient Assyrian texts. He is also the one moved to tears by Mrs. Jacobson’s lonely life. Mrs. Jacobson, at first repulsed by the crass movers, eventually falls for John, the scuzziest of the bunch. John, who never lifts a box throughout the evening, ends up with a job offer from the governor.

Similarly, the production is a study in self-contradiction. Dolly is an intelligent play built out of intentionally unimaginative elements. The set is nothing but cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling, as though the set designer lacked money, talent, or both. The world of professional movers is duller in this play than it could ever be in real life. The most profound line is, “Moving is emotionally honest work. We pick it up and put it back down. Then we do it again.” Yet this play somehow cleverly transcends its own hokiness and banality. Clearly it takes enormous talent to create a world so exquisitely uninteresting and to pull from it so much rich humor.

Perhaps even more important than O’Reilly’s comic talent is his great capacity for empathy. His characters are endearing even at their most unattractive–like when the hapless John is discovered trying to cheat Dude out of his share of the tips. It’s this loving celebration of human foibles that gives the play its big heart. And that heart makes this seemingly inconsequential stage world important.

In the second act O’Reilly uses a different, less successful approach. Instead of elevating the ordinary, he plunges his characters into the extraordinary. First Dude and John visit Lady Bird (Fieber), a mystical drug dealer who shadowboxes when she gets stoned. Then Wood and Dwight try to move Mr. Gaberdine Service (Tim Buckley), an old dreamer who lives to preserve the memory of a long-defunct company called Monorail International. Both of these scenes have intriguing elements. Gaberdine Service is particularly engaging, wandering among the relics of his past clutching a bouquet of long-dead roses. But these more serious, contemplative scenes depart almost entirely from the first act’s deadpan humor and intentionally mundane theatricality, and as a result the two acts fail to coalesce into a whole. In addition, the characters in the second-act scenes run on parallel tracks for the most part, unaffected by the other characters. So the collisions and complications that drove the first act are largely missing from the second.

But throughout, O’Reilly’s cast brings as much to this play as any playwright could want. Every actor understands that his or her character must take a backseat to the overall movement of the drama–these generous performers serve the text, not their egos. Of particular note are the members of the moving company–Rayner, Tamney, Martin, and Hanks–who have such well refined technique that they hardly seem to be acting at all. Yet each finds great theatricality in seemingly unimportant moments. In a city often smothered under the excesses of big, loud, “Chicago-style” theater, the spare, economical acting of these performers is a breath of fresh air.