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Dealer’s Choice

Never Swim Alone

Maricela de la Luz Lights the World

Roadworks Productions

at Victory Gardens Theater

By Adam Langer

Box-office failures are incredible teachers. The elusive appeal of a hit might inspire its authors to try to reproduce a winning formula, but a bomb provides a textbook example of what doesn’t succeed. Following the spectacular crash-and-burn of Roadworks’ unjustly maligned adaptation of James Finney Boylan’s The Planets, the company has returned more focused, more streamlined, and more dutifully professional than ever. Like a recovering heart-attack patient who starts to eat healthier or a band returning to its rock ‘n’ roll roots after an ill-fated rock opera, Roadworks has gotten its act together by relying on its strengths as an acting ensemble. Gone are the unearned pretension and drama-technique-on-parade phoniness of their earliest work. Gone as well are the overarching ambition and scattershot brilliance that informed their more recent efforts, most notably The Planets. To paraphrase Nietzsche and Conan the Barbarian, that which did not kill them has made them stronger.

Arming themselves against any repeat of this financial fiasco, Roadworks has not only produced fine drama but marketed three separate plays cleverly aimed at three different but overlapping audiences. Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice is a superbly executed drama meant to appeal to a general audience, Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone is a late-night satire of corporate America perfect for the office buddies, and Jose Rivera’s Maricela de la Luz Lights the World is a daytime children’s show to which everyone can bring the kids. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that survival in today’s brutal theater economy seems to require such a targeted approach and that astute professionalism wins out over the risky and experimental. But there can be little quarrel with the intelligence and versatility demonstrated here in perhaps the best main-stage, the best late-night, and the best kids’ shows of the year–certainly the best triple bill I’ve seen as a theater critic in Chicago.

Marber’s Dealer’s Choice, the up-and-coming British author’s first major work, revolves around a rather familiar theatrical topic: poker. But unlike some playwrights who use the game to explore all-male rituals (Tennessee Williams, David Mamet) and others who use it primarily as an excuse to get a group of disparate characters together for the length of a play (Neil Simon, the Factory Theater), Marber is concerned with poker itself. For him, the game reveals one’s character: how and why one plays, the way one shuffles, the way one bets, and–to borrow from Kenny Rogers–when one holds ’em and when one folds ’em.

Five idiosyncratic losers and dreamers gather every Sunday in a London restaurant for a game. Restaurant owner Stephen compulsively keeps score and regards poker as a test of discipline; for him the game is his only opportunity to see and attempt to reform his wayward son Carl, a meek, perennially broke gambling addict who views poker as a game of risk and passion. For the employees of Stephen’s restaurant, the game is an escape. Headwaiter Mugsy, who shuffles grandly and invents ridiculously complex games, dreams quixotically of opening his own restaurant in what used to be a public toilet. Womanizing waiter Frankie is a rash and thoughtless bettor practicing for his move to Las Vegas, where he wants to become a professional. And the undisciplined chef Sweeney, who’s lost custody of his daughter and routinely drinks too much and loses his shirt, is just trying to make enough money to treat his child for an afternoon. The arrival of professional gambler Ash–Carl invites him to fleece the others in order to clear up a debt–shows how impossible their petty dreams are.

With its pat conflicts, Dealer’s Choice is a bit too schematic. And Marber employs a split-screen effect, depicting two conversations at once, that’s contrived and runs counter to the naturalistic style he uses to such great effect in the rest of the play. The somewhat rushed second act doesn’t quite deliver the dramatic payoff the first act promises. Still, this is a wonderfully clever and entertaining work by a first-rate author, and the array of characters offers ample opportunity for Roadworks’ gifted ensemble to strut their stuff, under the razor-sharp direction of Abigail Deser.

As the lovable and naive Mugsy, Lance Baker gives a hilarious, richly detailed performance full of nervous mannerisms and amusing pronunciations. Derek Hasenstab is heartbreakingly accurate as the fatally flawed Sweeney, and Matt Scharff’s Frankie reveals not only the character’s macho bravado but the weakness and naivete beneath the bluster. As Carl’s exacting father and the surrogate father to his employees, Roderick Peeples is dead-on, as is the always excellent Jeffrey Hutchinson as the pro Ash. Only Daniel Gold as Carl gives a passable but occasionally unconvincing performance. The combined efforts of the rest of the top-notch ensemble, however, make this an unequivocal success.

Equally effective in its own loopy way is MacIvor’s one-act Never Swim Alone. Though it covers territory even more familiar than Marber’s, its conception is so fresh, and the play is so consistently inspired and exuberantly performed under the whip of Shade Murray, that it’s never anything less than a delight. Written, directed, and performed in the manner of a pas de deux or synchronized-swimming exhibition, the play depicts the cutthroat relationship between two glad-handing businessmen in the form of a 13-round competition. A referee judges Bill and Frank in such categories as dress, conducting cell-phone conversations, and subtly insulting each other over a power lunch. Separating the 13 rounds, which become increasingly contentious and violent, are lyrical monologues and jarringly poetic flashbacks to Bill and Frank’s idyllic childhood, when a tragic incident triggered their evolution from innocent youths to assholes in business suits.

Satire of corporate culture in the 90s is pretty passe, but I’ve never seen it done more wittily or entertainingly. The show never drags or turns trite; the moment you wonder if it will be able to sustain the energy, it ends in a flash. MacIvor’s dialogue is so quick it sounds like Mamet’s Hollywood types in Speed-the-Plow at 78 rpm. And Danny McCarthy and Matt Gibson as Bill and Frank give a brilliantly timed tag-team performance that’s as much a triumph of athleticism and concentration as of acting.

Even as a child I was never much a fan of moralistic, patronizing children’s theater, achieving notoriety in Mrs. Hersh’s second-grade class for writing the only negative review of the school-assembly performance. But Rivera’s fanciful Maricela de la Luz Lights the World is refreshingly intelligent and imaginative. Unlike the many shows that seem to treat adults like children (Triple Espresso, for example), Rivera’s play treats children like adults, referring to both pop culture and Greek mythology and tackling such topics as single-parent households, pollution, homelessness, and bourgeois indifference to social ills. Yet it never goes over the audience’s heads or gets preachy.

Set in LA during a freak blizzard, Rivera’s picaresque journey follows Riccardo and Maricela, two children trying to find their way home–and save the world from an impending ice age. Along the way they encounter a self-pitying Cyclops, a disaffected trio of Argonauts, a self-aggrandizing ancient god, a river goddess freezing to death, and a cornucopia of other spirits and mythological figures. Jeremy B. Cohen and Christine Hegel’s production is sprightly enough to entertain young audiences and smart enough to keep their parents awake and involved. And some of the performances and puppet work are positively inspired, most notably a snake that dances to “Feliz Navidad” and a seven-headed hydra that suggests a brood of Siamese muppets.

The play is a trifle talky in spots and guilty at times of the same moralizing that bugged me as a tot, and personally I could have done without the preshow pep talk. But when a theater group puts on a trio of shows as strong as Roadworks has, you cut it some slack. A company is lucky to have one solid hit per season. Roadworks has three.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dealer’s Choice/ Marcela de la Lux Lights the World theater stills by R. Robbins.