WHEN Through 3/18: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 & 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Wed 2/21-3/14, 8 PM

WHERE Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

PRICE $15-$25

INFO 773-281-8463

In the fall of 2003 a freshman at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University submitted a first-person story to his writing teacher full of detailed depictions of pedophilia, sexual torture, and dismemberment. Teacher Jan Richman distributed the story to the other students, as she did all submissions. In short order the university president heard about it, as did the head of campus security and the San Francisco police. By the end of the week the student, a professed fan of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, had been interrogated by police and expelled from school. Richman, who had previously assigned David Foster Wallace’s violent and misogynistic “Girl With Curious Hair” without administration approval, lost her job.

This incident inspired Chicago playwright Brett Neveu to write Harmless, now receiving its premiere at TimeLine. It’s set in the president’s office at fictional Prahl College, a small midwestern liberal arts school where a troubled 22-year-old freshman, a veteran just back from Iraq, has submitted a perverse and violent first-person narrative–an apparent confession of war crimes–to adjunct creative writing professor Jim McFehren. President Wesson, the grandson of the school’s founder and a zealous protector of Prahl’s reputation, summons McFehren to his office for damage control. Like his real-life counterpart, McFehren has assigned a violent story to his class without faculty approval–and without having read it first. The men’s tense but civil meeting becomes a high-stakes game of cat and mouse when Wesson ushers in a surprise guest: Lieutenant Mindy Ergenbright, an army criminal psychologist intent on grilling McFehren.

It’s not the first time Neveu has written from the headlines; his 2002 play Eric LaRue, about a woman whose 14-year-old son turned a shotgun on three school bullies, was inspired by the Columbine massacre. But while most playwrights who draw from current events spoon out palatable doses of “controversy” while prescribing where the audience’s sympathies should lie, Neveu turns messy reality into even messier fiction, blurring easy ethical distinctions and excavating the veins of cruelty, self-interest, and despair that run through the American unconscious.

It’s not unusual for Neveu’s characters to spend most of an evening talking about nothing. His fascination with Pinteresque subtext–all the things people can’t or won’t bring themselves to say–has always required actors and directors willing to dig into the scripts’ coded, highly charged interpersonal dynamics to find the latent drama. More often than not those efforts come up short; even the stellar cast of A Red Orchid’s Eric LaRue needed two weeks of performances to find the tension largely missing on opening night. So it’s no surprise that director Edward Sobel, here tackling his third Neveu premiere, is least successful in eliciting drama from the extended stretches of chitchat that open both acts. In each scene the characters should be testing the waters and staking out turf as they square off against one other: Wesson guarding his school’s image and his presidency, McFehren protecting his teaching post and his student’s right to free speech, Ergenbright probing to discover whether either man might have contributed to the student’s apparent breakdown. Instead they mostly mark time, avoiding the unpleasant facts that have brought them together.

But for the first time Neveu keeps such indirect dialogue to a minimum. Instead he’s discovered how much can remain concealed even as his characters confront one another head-on (a lesson he admits having learned from David Mamet). Neveu has never gotten his characters to the heart of the matter so quickly–an important step forward in his writing–in part because he’s never managed to open a play at such an urgent juncture. The characters have come together explicitly to uncover the truth–or, more accurately, to sway the others to their own version of it. Rather than reserving direct dialogue for the play’s finale, Neveu dramatizes the misunderstandings and willful distortions that even the most frank discussions can engender. As the confusions and complications pile up, each character sees with increasing clarity that his or her reputation and career is in jeopardy. Their desperate scrambling for self-preservation ultimately destroys the hapless student before he can even appear onstage. In an ingenious twist Ergenbright, who for much of the play seems to be the student’s only advocate, makes a horrifying confession in an effort to protect him from expulsion. Instead she seals his fate.

Sobel deftly controls the play’s escalating momentum, and in only 55 minutes it feels as though every demon in these characters’ lives has been called forth. Against Keith Pitts’s handsome, antiseptic set, John Jenkins’s Wesson is an obtuse, officious menace who uses his superior position to intimidate and manipulate the others. As McFehren, David Parkes shows too much of his hand too early in the play, but his gradual move from defending free speech to saving his neck at any cost is sobering. And as Ergenbright, Juliet Hart delivers an efficient, focused, and ultimately heartbreaking performance as she unwittingly dooms the soldier she’d hoped to redeem.

Ultimately it’s clear that despite all the trauma, these characters will emerge from the situation essentially unharmed, having colluded to sacrifice someone who never appears to defend himself. (Neveu’s only misstep may be making that student an innocent victim rather than a fourth ambiguous character who might add further complications to the play.) As topical as Harmless is, its themes of easy betrayal and self-preservation are dismayingly timeless. The play is the first of a trilogy Neveu plans concerning characters who have returned from Iraq. Audiences can count on being disturbed for some time to come.

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