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The Bloody Romantic

Broken Compass

Parodying Genesis, a recent Time Out Chicago article declared that Steppenwolf “begat” the Chicago theater scene. That’s not true, of course. You’d have to go back a good 20 years before Steppenwolf’s founding in the mid-70s to locate the real Adams and Eves of our current theater community–and back a generation or so before that to get a look at the gods that formed them. But the statement’s true enough if begetting a theater scene means supplying its central motifs. Its modes and metaphors. More than any other, Steppenwolf’s the company that defined the off-Loop archetype of the hungry young acting ensemble making art out of adrenaline in a little makeshift theater. The story of Steppenwolf founders Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney as peach-fuzzed youths, sprinting down a hill and bursting through a backstage door to make their wild and sweaty entrance, is a local cradle tale. It’s what everybody thinks they’re supposed to do.

And now the Broken Compass has done it, too–but with a paradoxical lightness of touch that makes its debut production, The Bloody Romantic, refreshingly transgressive.

A young company with the usual brave intentions (“no preconceptions or pre-formulations, no roadmaps, no clear paths,” declares their statement of purpose, “just big ideas, beautiful language and bold performances”), the Broken Compass subverts the off-Loop archetype by putting on a show that can get physical to the point of knock-down, drag-out raunchiness yet ultimately ingratiates with its verbal wit and sharp social observation. This perversely sophisticated romantic farce combines old-school Steppenwolf body language with the soul of Philip Barry.

Written by company members Greg Beam and Eric Poulin, The Bloody Romantic centers on Vince, a sybaritic chef in his “early late 20s,” who lives with his straitlaced gay lover, Frank. Vince’s last culinary venture was such a spectacular flop (“one would have to travel to sub-Saharan Africa…to find a worse dining experience,” comments a critic) that he’s been reduced to giving private cooking lessons to Frank’s rich ex-wife, Gloria. Not much cooking–of food–goes on, though: the lessons have devolved into ferociously depraved, highly imaginative sexual encounters. Vince can’t help falling for a woman who pays for it. Frank doesn’t catch the hints because he’s busy fucking his high-powered self-admitted asshole of a boss, Ben.

Beam and Poulin don’t discriminate among levels of wit. They’re as avid for jokes about chlamydia and gay lawyers’ briefs as for more worldly satire on the confusions of metrosexuality. And they’re commendably fearless, if unorthodox, about waxing sentimental. One of the best passages in the play has Vince and Gloria engaged in a truly vicious erotic wrestling match while appraising Woody Allen’s 2003 movie, Anything Else. The scene’s not just funny–it also offers an unexpectedly sweet insight into what makes these two deviants so perfect for each other.

There’s plenty wrong with The Bloody Romantic. A character named Kingsley is thrown in, for instance, just to generate a bit of surreal mystery–but there’s no real payoff in finding out who he is. And director Frank Cermak Jr. hasn’t solved the problem of how to present the sex so that it conveys wild abandon yet maintains conventional standards of modesty for the stage. Vince and Gloria writhing around in opaque and ample underwear just doesn’t strike the necessary balance. A different approach is required.

Still, the script’s smart and the ensemble’s strong. Coauthor Beam plays Vince with an insouciance that makes his utter lack of scruples a kind of virtue. Similarly, Katlyn Carlson’s Gloria is sexy in her narcissism. But James Errico is the best/worst of them all as asshole Ben, the compleat predator. Leading with his crotch and slinging his leg over any upright object that presents itself, he embodies the spirit of the play. The sight of him finessing a possible harassment suit is this production’s single best moment.

WHEN: Through 8/20: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

WHERE: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago

PRICE: $10-$15

INFO: 773-772-0712

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