WHEN Through 6/3: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

WHERE A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

PRICE $20-$25

INFO 312-943-8722

Brett Neveu has become Chicago’s most produced local playwright by probing the dark, violent recesses of American culture. Naturally, calls have arisen for him to come up with the next “great American play.” But given his penchant for characters lost in trivialities, they don’t often achieve tragic stature. And Neveu’s bursts of greatness are sometimes overlooked, as they were in the masterful Eric LaRue five years ago. Plus he’s always had as much interest in the small and weird as the big and profound–he spent his first few years in Chicago pretending to be a really bad puppeteer in tiny backroom theaters.

On occasion directors have even squelched Neveu’s attempts at profundity: in early 2006 A Red Orchid turned The Earl, a sobering examination of ritualized male violence, into frat-party mayhem. But this time a different Red Orchid director, Brennan Parks, has gotten Neveu’s intriguing new The Meek exactly right–or as right as this flawed work can be got.

The Meek may belong in the playwright’s small-and-weird drawer, but its fractured lyricism and surreal imagery give it a haunting allure. Like The Earl, The Meek sprang from a dream: Neveu moved back into his parents’ house, and his father forced him to live in the basement where a woman stepped out of a painting and began ordering him around. The Meek is set in a grubby, cramped basement apartment where thirtysomething punk Glynn scribbles incessantly in a notebook, perhaps writing an elaborate system of rules he hopes to live by. Terrified of the sun’s gravitational pull, he refuses to leave his apartment, listening to 80s punk nonstop. His neighbor, Patrick, is so enamored of Glynn’s outre lifestyle that he invents any excuse to drop by. In the first scene, he bursts in to breathlessly report that the “drug guy” has been driving around the neighborhood again; he also gives Glynn a book he found on the street. After Glynn sends him home to report the drug guy to the police, a toga-clad woman named Voni emerges from the bedroom. Glynn tosses her out too, but she immediately reappears in the apartment, saying that she can’t leave because she’s a character from the book Patrick gave him.

It’s a bumpy opening. Parks treats the initial encounter between Glynn and Patrick so realistically that Voni seems to come from another play. But once she settles in, Parks lets the realism warp in subtle, playful ways. In one of many intentionally clumsy yet poetic monologues, Voni explains her existence: she was walking through the woods, stepped into a stream, took her foot out–and realized that the water she’d stepped in had flowed downstream and taken her reflection with it. Flopped on Glynn’s cruddy sofa like a graceless teenager, she concludes, “At that moment, I became both book and person.” Then a man, Kenneth, appears in a black recess in the back wall, telephoning Glynn to inform him that “the department of grants” is giving him $8,000. Kenneth keeps calling back, then finally admits he’s lost and needs Glynn to rescue him.

Later Kenneth gets sucked through his headset and spit out the ear hole of Glynn’s telephone, and he, Voni, and Patrick begin taking over Glynn’s basement sanctum. All three are drawn to the perfect insularity and comfort they envision there. Halfway through the play the drug guy bursts in, brandishing a gun he insists is “very very very real,” but even he succumbs to the apartment’s supposed charms, marveling that he can sit on the couch and reach anything set on the coffee table. It becomes clear that all four have lived chaotic lives and idealize Glynn’s hermetic, unvarying existence.

The world of The Meek is patterned after underground comic books, and Parks’s fluid staging treats the play’s childlike but dark-edged surrealism almost matter-of-factly. The performances are elastic enough to make the evening’s strangeness credible, but the cast never goes for easy laughs. Most important, Parks encourages his actors to honor Neveu’s stylized but casually naive dialogue–Patrick offers his devotion to Glynn as his “everything springtime.” As a result, unassuming poetic truths burst forth in hilariously inarticulate form.

As beguiling as The Meek is, Neveu hasn’t made sense of Glynn’s predicament. For most of the play’s 90 minutes, Glynn passively witnesses the destruction of his carefully ordered world, doing little but stewing quietly or asking someone to leave. The play never dramatizes his need for isolation, the fanatical withdrawal from society the other characters admire. And Glynn’s pathological need to control every aspect of his life fails to give the play greater psychological depth. Glynn’s stakes never build–there’s not even a compelling reason for him to be onstage when he could easily lock himself in the bathroom to escape his intruders. His vicious final act springs from convenience, not dramatic necessity.

Neveu seemingly followed his dream inspiration into richly amusing, provocative territory but couldn’t find his way out. The journey dead-ends, but as in most dreams, the evocative stops along the way make the trip worthwhile.

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