The Masses Are Asses, Chicago Art Theatre, at Heartland Studio Theater. As staggering a combo of virtuosic and wretched as I’ve seen, this Pedro Pietri play may just set a new standard for audience frustration. The first half is dizzying, dazzling, a tour de force of whip-smart wordplay and nimbly shifting scenario whose surreality camouflages some audaciously frank class-warfare analysis. The second is a vast, desolate cul-de-sac, in which the larger socioeconomic issues get completely subsumed by personal ones. The culprit: a doozy of a dramatic twist that literally paints the narrative into a corner. Imagine the famous Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith finally gets left alone with his beloved books, then breaks his glasses; now imagine the enhanced edition, where we watch him not read for another half hour.

Things get so excruciating on the back nine that even hinting at the switcheroo would be criminal, but absent that there’s not much to describe: a jet-setting couple’s dinner conversation is periodically punctuated by offstage violence. But cut part two and you’d have a helluva one-act. Chicago Art Theatre’s smolderingly polished production proves this beyond a doubt, in addition to marking the new company as one to watch. Thomas Jones and Laura Schreiber give Equity-level performances, transforming the cramped environs into catbird seats, and director Jeremy W. Peacock navigates the swings between black humor and absurd dismay assuredly–until Pietri pulls the rug out.