Poor Man’s Amos

Bruised Orange Theater Company

at Oracle Productions

Poor Man’s Amos could have been a disaster: one man, Clint Sheffer, is the playwright, one of the show’s two performers, and Bruised Orange’s artistic director. Instead it’s a terrific evening, impeccably paced and balanced between humor and pathos. One of the show’s many strengths is that it doesn’t go in any expected direction. It begins like a poor man’s Zoo Story, with a random hostile encounter between two strangers. Later it resembles David Mamet’s work, complete with snatches of unlooked-for erudition as well as profane, inarticulate speeches that communicate more than the characters realize or intend. The play’s ending, however, is wholly original, reflecting a sensibility more humane than either Albee’s or Mamet’s.

Two men headed in opposite directions meet on facing el platforms. Reggie is an artist trying desperately to maintain his street cred (“I prefer ‘painter,’ it doesn’t raise so many false expectations,” he says), strutting his south-side working-class roots and masking his adoration of fellow art student Chrissie with crude language and displays of a portrait he’s painted of her vagina. At first blush Seth seems more intellectual: wrapped in a trench coat, he’s grading papers from the class he’s teaching on dream interpretation when Reggie interrupts him. But over the course of the play the two men trade status, once Reggie publishes a graphic novel and Seth loses his job. They also trade, and ultimately share, an obsession with Chrissie, who’s never seen. Though her actions, especially her choice of bedmate, drive the plot, the play is less about her than about the men’s idea of her. Roughly a Madonna/whore, she also seems more complicated and textured than that thanks to Sheffer’s writing. Whatever else they might be doing, Reggie and Seth are always hauling around the concept of Chrissie, and the weight of that baggage gives the play its title: Amos was the biblical prophet whose name means “burden bearer.”

What saves this odyssey from grimness is Sheffer’s wit, less a matter of slinging funny lines than appreciating absurd situations, like Reggie’s cell-phone call to Chrissie in which “you’re breaking up” morphs into “we’re breaking up.” Though the play sinks into melodrama in the last two scenes, with a shade too much bonding between the men, Sheffer’s genuine emotion is better than the sterile cleverness he might easily have fallen into. The melodrama is a shame, though, because it undercuts the power of the final scene, in which the two men find the compensatory power of male friendship.

In Mary Foster’s directorial debut, Andy Schoen as Reggie captures perfectly the person who’s so busy complaining about what he didn’t get that he loses the things he has. Sheffer as Seth is nerdy and defeated without being maudlin, and as the men’s friendship grows, he’s adept at conveying the character’s battle between discomfort and relief. Anthony Churchill’s simple set–two huge boxes serve as el platforms, pews, tables, and everything else that’s needed–is completely suited to the lean text and direction. The entire enterprise is bare-bones in the best sense, tight and flawlessly shaped.

When: Through 9/25: Thu-Sun 8 PM

Where: Oracle Productions, 3809 N. Broadway

Price: $15

Info: 773-329-1088

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