Center Theater and Wisdom Bridge Theatre

at Wisdom Bridge Theatre

There’s very little to quibble about in Wisdom Bridge and Center Theater’s production of Keith Reddin’s Life During Wartime. Rob Hamilton’s set design is breathtakingly inventive. Michael Maggio directs an excellent ensemble of actors, who wring every last drop of humor and drama from Reddin’s script, and Michael Bodeen and Joe Cerqua’s delightfully quirky score provides an effectively sinister undercurrent. Which leaves us with only one problem–the play itself.

It’s not as if Life During Wartime lacks merit. There is certainly more than enough snappy dialogue and intricate plotting to make for diverting entertainment. Reddin has a vivid and original imagination, but sometimes he seems to be overcompensating for a lack of ideas. Reddin is like a dishonest taxi driver who takes us on a fabulous journey but drops us off exactly where we expected and leaves us wondering if the scenic tour was really worth it. Life During Wartime’s clever structure and unpredictability promises to take us some place new and tell us something we haven’t heard before, but the final payoff feels like a real letdown.

Tommy (John Berczeller), Reddin’s usual wide-eyed Panglossian idealist, takes a job as a salesman of home security systems at a disreputable firm run by Mametian con artist Heinrich (Dan LaMorte). In case we missed the point that Heinrich is an homage to Mamet, he spouts his doctrine of amorality in a Chinese restaurant a la Glengarry Glen Ross.

Tommy’s first sale comes at the house of an older woman named Gale (JoAnn Carney), who lives with her wigged-out teenage son Howard (Paul White). Tommy immediately falls in love with Gale, and she falls for his pitch, buying his intricate burglar-alarm system and falling in love with him as well. What draws Tommy and Gale to each other is the same thing that draws people to burglar-alarm systems–a promise of safety from the fear of being alone.

These proceedings are observed through the disapproving eyes of John Calvin (Marc Vann), 16th-century theologian and founder of the Protestant doctrine of predestination. At certain points during the play Calvin pops out to give us his opinions on the decadence of modern society as exemplified by the characters in the play. Reddin’s treatment of Calvin seems a bit contradictory. He is sometimes used as the play’s conscience; other times he is mocked as a personification of the blindness that emerges in people who so fear the unknown that they forfeit their free will in the hopes of achieving security.

As it turns out, neither the security of burglar alarms nor romance works out for Tommy and Gale. In a scene that requires extreme suspension of disbelief, even as far as sleazy salesmen are concerned, Heinrich reveals that alarms occasionally go unanswered so that the company can profit from selling system upgrades to victims and new systems to the victims’ neighbors. Such is the case when no one responds to a break-in at Gale’s house and she and her son are murdered.

It is about this time, at the end of the first act, that Reddin’s play begins to run out of gas. It bounces around almost as if its author were trying to distract us from the fact that he has nothing left to say. We follow Tommy’s descent into a private hell. He quits his job, threatens Heinrich for his complicity in the murders, and takes an overnight job as a desk attendant in a scummy motel before finally coming to appreciate what really matters in a world where security is an illusion.

Reddin’s play might carry more weight if his characters didn’t seem like concepts in search of personalities. Tommy’s optimism in particular seems to be set up solely so that the author can shoot it down. Reddin introduces us to a number of quirky characters in snapshotlike scenes designed to show us the fear and paranoia in contemporary society, but these scenes seem to have been chosen randomly and their lengths appear arbitrary. Reddin gets some dramatic mileage out of a scene in which a gun-crazy NRA member (Marc Vann again) displays his high-caliber security system to Tommy, but a scene in which Tommy pours out his soul to a tortured drunk seemed unnecessary.

The scenes with John Calvin are particularly problematic. At first they provide some moments of comic relief, but later on his intrusions grate on the nerves. A debate between Calvin and the ghost of Gale about free will versus predestination begs for the scissors. Calvin’s presence looks as though it was designed to add philosophical importance to Reddin’s play, but the philosophy of the play is unclear. Reddin strives for the Big Statements but winds up telling us little more than “Embrace Life,” “Love Is All You Need,” and other pieces of bumper sticker philosophy. Not bad messages for the Valentine season, but the setup promises much more.

At the end the audience is left to ponder the few truths that Life During Wartime does provide–that Michael Maggio is still one of the best directors in the city, that Marc Vann is still one of Chicago’s best actors, and that another rewrite might have made better use of Reddin’s gift for imaginative situations and intelligent dialogue to create a more profound play.