Denis Johnson was well on his way to cult fame by the time the desperadoes and articulate lowlifes that populate his fiction attracted the attention of Hollywood. Over the course of the 90s, in addition to publishing novels and short stories, he worked on a half-dozen screenplays, only one of which (an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s A Swell-Looking Babe) was produced. Although his star was rising, he was frustrated.

“I wanted more talking, a lot more talking than the producers,” Johnson says. “I would say to these guys, ‘I like those 1930s movies. They’re more like plays. . . . Why can’t we do that?'” In 1998 it occurred to him that he could. He quickly wrote one play, then in just four weeks drafted his second, Hellhound on My Trail. The first in a trilogy, it premiered in 2000 in a production staged by the San Francisco troupe Campo Santo and won the San Francisco Bay Area Critic’s Circle award for best original script. This week its Chicago premiere is also the debut of the Viaduct Theater company.

Director Whitney Blakemore and set designer Robert Whitaker bought the cavernous space on Western near Belmont in 1997, and the Viaduct Theater opened its doors in 1998. Since then the venue’s hosted successful runs by several off-Loop companies—the House Theatre of Chicago just extended its production of The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan on the main stage—but mounting a show of their own didn’t become financially viable until this year. Fans of Johnson’s work, Blakemore and Whitaker were both adapting some of his stories when Blakemore came across the script for Hellhound. “It’s character driven, the language is exceptional, and it’s just really tight,” she says. “Nothing’s artificially pretty in his world.”

Born in Munich in 1949, Johnson, whose father was in the foreign service, grew up largely in Tokyo and Manila. In 1967 he holed up at the University of Iowa, a self-described “pot-deranged beatnik,” and graduated in 1974 with an MFA. He first made his name as a poet—selections from his four volumes are collected in 1995’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly—then with novels like Angels, Fiskadoro, Already Dead, and, especially, the 1992 story collection Jesus’ Son, which was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name. His nonfiction, recently collected in Seek, reports from Liberia, Afghanistan, and Somalia as well as Utah militia camps, Christian biker rallies, and the Rainbow Gathering.

It’s not hard to find continuities between Johnson’s other work and Hellhound—disaster, imposture, fanaticism, drug deals gone wrong. It’s also not easy to say what the play’s about. Part of the difficulty stems from its lack of a discernible dramatic arc. Instead, three pairs of characters enact three self-contained scenes connected by offstage events that remain obscure. It’s more shaggy-dog than Preston Sturges.

In Hellhound, as one character puts it, “everything’s either absurd or damning.” Heads are rolling in the Department of Agriculture (Johnson says his brother’s experiences at the FDA got him interested in the workings of bureaucracies), the result of a botched investigation-turned-siege of a jam factory. Marigold Cassandra, who may or may not have invited a coworker to lick some of the preserves off her breasts, is on the carpet and washing down pills with airplane-issue bottles of booze. Her nemesis, a scalp-hunting superior, is under investigation by an operative named Jack Toast. Meanwhile, Marigold’s brother Cass, out to save her, is waylaid at a remote Texas motel by a menacing member of a splinter religious sect. There’s no shortage of talking.

Viaduct plans to stage Johnson’s Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, which follows the Cassandra clan to California, in the near future. The second play in the trilogy, it had a successful off-Broadway run this summer. Asked about his influences, Johnson claims he doesn’t know enough about plays to have any. But four years into a residency with Campo Santo, he also says he can’t stop writing them. “I’ll keep doing it until they get sick of me.”

Hellhound on My Trail previews Thursday through Saturday, September 12 through 14, and Wednesday and Thursday, September 18 and 19, at 8 PM at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western, 773-296-6024. It opens Friday, September 20, and runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through October 19. Tickets are $15, $10 for previews. Live music follows selected performances at 10:30 PM: this week features Danny Black and Funeral Home Photographers on September 13 and Cameron McGill and the Siderunners on September 14. Shows are $8, but Hellhound ticket holders get in free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Cindy Johnson