Early and Often

Famous Door Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

By Erik Piepenburg

The first time you see the guy hanging out near the entrance to the theater, all you want to do is get away, get your ticket ripped, and find a seat. A rotund man with a severe crew cut and an ill-fitting gray suit, he bellows, “Hi! My name is Marty Collins and I’m a Democrat running for state representative!” as he pumps my hand with his sweaty paw. “Nice jacket! Who’s your friend? I could use your vote!” Minutes later, from the safe harbor of your seat, you see the lights come up on the guy, now under a coroner’s blanket and stiff as a board.

So go the opening moments of Early and Often, Famous Door’s cleverly written, superbly acted world premiere, a political farce that masterfully skewers the Chicago machine of four decades ago. Think of it as a funny valentine to voters in an election year that makes us long for a scene as unpredictable and rambunctious as this one.

Husband-and-wife playwrights Thomas R. Wolfe and Barbara Wallace, former Chicagoans now living in New York and scripting the new CBS sitcom Welcome to New York, have fashioned a savvy story: a group of Chicago politicos struggle to deliver the Democratic goods for the Kennedy campaign despite backroom backstabbing, marital infidelity, conniving Republicans, and the mysteriously appearing and disappearing body of the aforementioned state representative. Set in various north-side locales on the eve of Kennedy’s election, Early and Often revolves primarily around Art Ruck (Marc Grapey), a good-natured Democratic ward loyalist with Springfield on his mind. It’s his job to cover up the state rep’s untimely death (turns out it was a mob hit by the “Eye-talians”) and convince his own pregnant wife, Connie (Stephanie Childers), that contrary to the rumors circulating, he is not sleeping with Jackie Kennedy. Another woman yes, Jackie-O no.

Various political players and hangers-on traipse into the picture; sensing a revolution, they’re mostly giddy with anticipation of parties at the Kennedy White House and shakedowns. Among this crowd are the oafish good ol’ boy ward committeeman Flannery (Will Casey, a dead ringer for a young George Ryan) and his cohort Dennis (Dan Rivkin), a wisp of a yes-man who burdens well-mannered barkeep Jimmy (Danny McCarthy) with crazy ramblings about the superior Soviet space program, plastic houses in the Wisconsin Dells, and watering holes where people will one day gather to watch sports on television. Meanwhile, Jimmy gets roped into storing the dead body in his back-room freezer.

That Wolfe and Wallace are sitcom-situated is quite evident. Early and Often employs devices lifted directly from the TV playbook: quirky characters cavort along several parallel story lines, recurring gags become characters’ trademarks, one-liners end a scene with a chuckle or a “hmmm,” quick shifts in location mirror the fast cuts of the small screen. In the hands of less capable writers, blending the worlds of sitcom snickers with theatrical shenanigans could have resulted in disaster.

But the rewards are plentiful in this incredibly intimate, very funny show so steeped in local color–particularly the political culture and linguistic nuances–that it could have been penned at City Hall. Scores of references to people and places like Dirksen, the Waveland Bowl, and Rosehill Cemetery, delivered in the protracted cadences and long vowels of the Chicago accent, had many audience members nodding. (Others seemed to miss the history–though they managed to find the humor–a minor handicap should the show ever be mounted outside the Chicago area.) Harking back to such thinking man’s comedies as The Front Page and You Can’t Take It With You, Wolfe and Wallace both belie and substantiate the truism that they don’t write shows like this anymore.

Director Karen Kessler maintains a frisky tone throughout, keeping everyone–including the dead guy (kudos to Steve Rose, a magnificent corpse)–on their toes. And you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Giving Flannery a constipated smile and lumbering gait, Casey hilariously sends up the emotional emptiness, the false bonhomie, of politicians. As Ruck, Grapey maintains a delicate balance between understated anger and discerning honesty.

But it’s the magnificent Laura T. Fisher as Norma Collins, wife of the deceased rep, who’s simply unforgettable. If Tallulah Bankhead had been raised in Bridgeport, she would have turned out something like Fisher’s Norma, a cocksure broad whose tightly wound mouth wraps around the word “key punch” with riotous bullet force and whose deliberate movements–try not to faint with exhilaration when she picks up a napkin and places it under her drink–are so wonderfully scene-stealing my pulse quickened each time I saw her step from the wings.

The flaws in this stellar show may be the result of too many workshops and rewrites. A few of the characters, including a hit man and an FBI agent, seem to be afterthoughts, while others apparently suffered major surgery, particularly the woefully underused Norma and a “tough queer” character named Johnny (Tim Kane), a singer with a mean left hook. His steps out of the closet and unfairylike demeanor are refreshing but unusual for the time and therefore in need of more development. The poor guy doesn’t even warrant an appearance in the final shoot-’em-up scene with everyone else.

Still, the combination of a deftly calibrated ensemble, Ron Keller’s period-perfect set, and Sally Keay’s meticulously styled costumes ensures a wonderful time, probably the best time you’ll have anywhere near the polls this year.

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