I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Theater Wit’s local premiere of 2019’s The Whistleblower by Itamar Moses is opening in the midst of the WGA strike. Certainly Eli (Ben Faigus), the insufferable screenwriter-manchild at the center of the show, won’t win the hearts and minds of anyone who has already figured out that the hero’s-journey narrative is largely self-serving bullshit.
Through 6/17: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $18-$55
Eli and his partner, Dan (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II), pitch a story to producer Richard (Michael Kostroff) about a screenwriter going on a quest for “truth.” But as soon as Richard gives the green light, Eli pulls the rug out from under them. He’s giving up the business and heading home to the Bay Area to confront his demons. Or at least to force his family and friends to confront theirs, so he’ll feel like he’s making a difference in the world. On his way out, he breaks up with his actor girlfriend, Allison (Julia Alvarez), and tells Sophie (Rae Gray), Dan’s assistant, that she should get out of the business, too.
Eli’s a bit like what you’d get if you crossed Gregers, the meddling teller-of-truths in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, with John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity. As the overprotected youngest child of Joseph (Kostroff) and Hannah (RjW Mays), he doesn’t seem to have ever been told that most people won’t care what he thinks about their life choices. Confrontations with his drug-dealing sister Rebecca and a former girlfriend, Eleanor, whom he abandoned when she became pregnant (both played by Gray, who is fantastic across the board here), leave him reeling from the realization that they don’t need or want his involvement in their lives.
So while Eli has envisioned a story about “men who use their supposedly important work to avoid facing themselves,” that’s exactly what he continues to do even after walking away from the deal he wanted for years. He may not be as delusional as his old friend Max (Andrew Jessop), who has abandoned painting for a life of nothingness on a houseboat. But he’s still mostly at sea about how people and the world operate. An ill-advised late-night visit to Richard’s own Bay Area retreat ends with the latter reminding him that most people are playing roles throughout their lives. (Kostroff, perhaps best known as slimy defense attorney Maury Levy on The Wire, excels as both the smug producer and as Eli’s thwarted father, whose battles with Eli and Rebecca’s mother gives us some insight into how both kids got so screwed up.)
It takes a while for Jeremy Wechsler’s staging to find its groove, and I don’t think that’s just because Eli is (intentionally) so repellent. But by the time of the incendiary encounter between Eli and Eleanor, the stakes begin to feel real. Or at least as real as anything is in this sometimes exasperating, but ultimately well-crafted portrait of the folly of expecting stories to save us with their “truth.” It starts out with cynicism, but by the end, The Whistleblower is a handy reminder that, while we may not be “authentic,” we’re all absolutely real.