4 Murders

A Red Orchid Theatre

Writers have frequently seen the American city as a crucible for both personal reinvention and impersonal violence. But in the hands of Chicago playwright Brett Neveu, both possibilities get twisted together into a compact, smart, and often moving piece of theater. Frequently compared to David Mamet, Neveu seems closer to Albee and Pinter in this murder nonmystery–the killer’s identity is plain almost from the start, though his motives are obscure. Essentially Neveu has crafted his own version of Pinter’s “comedy of menace,” since despite the grim subject matter the play has many joltingly funny moments.

The usual setting of Neveu’s plays is an American small town, like the one drying up in last spring’s American Dead or the one inhabited by crystal-meth addicts in The Go or the one scarred by a school shooting in Eric LaRue (his strongest play, also originally produced by A Red Orchid Theatre). 4 Murders has the poignancy and beguiling dark charm of these earlier works, but it lacks the indelible sense of despair that accumulates in Eric LaRue and American Dead.

Echoing the two-act, four-scene structure he used so effectively in Eric LaRue, Neveu here makes each scene–devoted to the interaction between the killer and one victim–its own short play. The killers’ targets are a neurotic freelance writer, a talkative executive working late at the office (a scene that feels a bit like a palimpsest of Albee’s The Zoo Story), a pissed-off factory worker coming off the third shift, and a man staying by himself in a down-at-heels hotel. The perpetrator–who might be named Joel Nepples–is a nebbishy, chameleonic middle-aged fellow. In Lawrence MacGowan’s eerily calm performance, his demeanor never changes–just his cover story as he wins the confidence of his victims, who all seem to be in desperate need of a sounding board. In one case Joel pretends he’s a longtime resident of a changing neighborhood and reassures the shut-in writer that they’re living in a good place. In another he’s a fast-food deliveryman who, mysteriously, has time to sit and chat a while with the exec. Each vignette runs the risk of devolving into a stereotypical depiction of urban isolation and loneliness yet is saved by Neveu’s dialogue, crystalline and elliptical at once, revealing the links between the victims.

Though the script’s austere language can be distancing, Neveu never has fun at the characters’ expense. When Brenda, the toy-factory grunt, exclaims to Joel that “everything is very painful, and none of it is my fault,” it gets a laugh–but it doesn’t detract from the weight of Brenda’s sore feet and dulled aspirations. Director Guy Van Swearingen’s cast is generally excellent, though Cecil Burroughs tends to overplay the glad-handing executive.

4 Murders may not be Neveu’s best work, but what I admire most about him is his blithe willingness to go wherever he wants. He’s carried the burden of being Chicago theater’s next big thing for a few years now–the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England, has slated Eric LaRue for the fall of 2005, and Neveu just received the League of Chicago Theatres’ first-ever award to an emerging artist. Still, some critics seem to wish he’d hurry up and write the masterpiece that will put him on the map. Instead, Neveu continues to write small, intriguing plays that address American identity, violence, and dislocation with intelligence, compassion, and dollops of disarming black humor. In a society obsessed with closure and healing, Neveu’s plays are stringent reminders that no human life is ever resolved. It just ends.

4 Murders

When: Through 6/5: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Price: $14-$20

Info: 312-943-8722

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