The chief advantage to staging a play in a nontheatrical public place—a restaurant, a parking garage, in front of a urinal trough at Wrigley Field—is the place’s ready-made sense of atmosphere. To state the obvious, directors, designers, and actors don’t have to create the illusion of being at a restaurant if they’re actually, you know, at a restaurant. The primary drawback, on the other hand, is the multitude of distracting stimuli assailing audience members’ senses once they step outside the focused world of the theater, where everything is dark except what you’re supposed to be looking at.
This threat of divided attention hangs over the Side Project’s Cut to the Quick: On Location, a collection of six short plays staged in several storefront businesses located, like the theater, near the Jarvis Red Line stop in Rogers Park. The venues include a bar, a coffee shop, an automotive repair center, and the offices of 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. On the Saturday afternoon during which I saw all six one-acts in a great big lump, only half took place at their designated homes because the remaining businesses were otherwise engaged; the rest of the plays were hosted, just this once, inside the Side Project’s tiny storefront space.
So I can’t tell you how well each of the pieces does in its site-specific setting. But I can tell you that nearly all of the scripts seem particularly well-suited to the project, both in their staging requirements and subject matter—which, broadly speaking, is the collision of private selves in public spaces. Five of the six plays take the form of conversations between two people who don’t know each other very well or at all, but over the course of their brief interaction end up revealing something about themselves that, we sense, they usually leave unsaid. It’s a simple premise, but the results are often deeply affecting in the hands of these insightful writers and directors.
The only piece that doesn’t follow the pattern is Nobody by Crystal Skillman (one of the productions I saw on location, at an Italian restaurant), and it’s the weakest of the bunch, a series of monologues recounting a momentous day from shifting perspectives. The script’s portentous tone fails to engage, and Derek Garza’s spread-out staging, with cast members frozen in spots throughout the space, feels wooden and diffuse.
Skillman fares better in Birthday, her playlet about a woman who slips away from an office birthday party and falls into a chat with a melancholy man sitting alone at the bar. It looks like a meet cute is afoot, but it turns into a meet sad, with both characters conveying a weary awareness that life’s possibilities, once seemingly limitless, have begun to shrink. As the woman, Meredith Rae Lyons manages to suggest a low-grade panic underneath her surface chatter.
At only 15, Cory, the protagonist of Mark Schultz’s Ceremony, still believes in limitless possibilities. In fact, he fantasizes that he’s the long-lost fourth Jonas brother and that someday the boy band will rescue him from what he actually is: an awkward, hurting kid whose mom is gone and whose dad is about to marry somebody else. At the couple’s wedding rehearsal dinner, we meet Cory’s 20-year-old soon-to-be-stepbrother, James, and at first it seems he’ll provide some much-needed protection and guidance for the younger boy—until it becomes clear he has predatory designs on him. As in his earlier play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, Schultz offers a squirm-inducing portrayal of a screwed-up teenager straining to be “special and beautiful and good,” as Cory puts it, in a world where adults are either distant or dangerous. Ty Baumann, playing Cory with an arsenal of Jack Benny hand gestures, misses the boy’s raw adolescent longing, but Dillon Kelleher, alternately charming and chilling, is perfect as James.
The remaining three one-acts take place on the job. Jesse Weaver’s The Float, about a pair of convenience store clerks working the graveyard shift, conveys a sense of economic desperation but to no real end. At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, Mark Young’s The Billing King, depicting the water cooler talk of a pair of junior associates at a competitive law firm, displays a Mamet-like mastery of insider jargon mixed with brutal dog-eat-dogism. What’s more, Young shows how the men’s fixation on billable hours, in which time is literally money, has hardened them into cynics who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The final play in the sextet is Fixtures, a world premiere by Brett Neveu in which the playwright returns to a subject that frequently pops up in his work: boarded-up businesses. In this case, it’s a shuttered Chevrolet dealership that once stood, we’re told, as a glittering “beacon on a hill.” The owner is now down to selling off the light fixtures when a mysterious huckster arrives with a proposal to preserve the site in perpetuity to memorialize what certain people at a certain moment in time considered the end-all, be-all. Neveu is mostly having a lark here, but, on the other hand, you could do worse than a shiny, empty car dealership as an everlasting monument to postwar American capitalism. v
RCut to the Quick
Through 8/17: contact theater for schedule, various locations, 773-973-2150, thesideproject.net, $10.