THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Theatre Building Chicago. Javon Johnson sets his weird, witty fable in a halfway house where five ex-cons struggle to stay straight with assistance from a zealous parole officer and a prostitute named Grace. The magic realism of this world premiere takes getting used to, but soon we accept English speakers praying in Arabic and spiritual instructions arriving by pay phone. Johnson’s rogues’ gallery includes Mitch (the excellent Gary Saipe), whose fortune–made in Avon products–disappeared when he killed his wife; now he’s reduced to trying to kill the neighbors’ dog and being called “Skin So Soft” by the others. There are also brothers Basil and James, who hold each other responsible for the same murder; Austin, unhinged by discovering his girlfriend was a man; and a youngster who killed his father as a gang initiation. Each character has his moment, as does the prostitute, but the parole officer (TaRon Patton, serious as a heart attack in the midst of absurd goings-on) remains a cipher despite her pivotal role.
Director Derrick Sanders evokes strong performances from all, particularly Will Sims II as James, whose god is crack; Sean Nix as his annoyingly good brother; and Stephen Spencer as insane Austin, who takes Biblical injunctions literally. Johnson’s religious symbolism is simultaneously playful and powerful, and his debt to Sartre and Dostoyevsky elegantly paid.