Chicago Theatre Company

It’s supposedly easier to get a cheap giggle than a deep, honest laugh. One-liners and snappy sex jokes trigger the audience’s laugh reflex faster than socially conscious or character-generated humor. But James Graham Bronson’s Willie & Esther stands this idea on its head. Its easy-target jokes fall flat, but when it contrasts the dismal surroundings of its characters with their modest hopes and dreams, Willie & Esther is able to tackle social issues in a way that is both humorous and real. The higher the play aims, the better it gets.

Willie & Esther, currently being presented by the Chicago Theatre Company, is a story of two hopelessly bumbling LA residents plotting a bank heist and denying that they’re in love. They argue, fight, and tease each other before a frightening realization forces them to abandon their get-rich-quick dreams and see how important they are to each other.

Willie is a big-hearted dreamer and liar. He works in the produce department at a grocery store but calls himself an executive. He says he used to be a championship boxer, won medals in the Army, and has more women than Esther could imagine. Esther is more levelheaded, an alcoholic beauty-shop worker who’s been treated poorly by men in the past and longs to marry Willie and settle down.

Willie and Esther talk about what they would do with the money they would get from the bank. Willie’s dreams are small; he’d like to take only a thousand or two and pay the bank back after using the money to win the lottery. Esther’s dreams are bigger, but she acknowledges that the neighborhood bank probably wouldn’t have enough money to make her dreams come true. After giving up their plan they wind up in front of Willie’s apartment, where most of his belongings are on the street. They then try to decide how to take revenge on the man who threw the things out.

This inept comic pair play out their squabbles in front of a background of city violence, drive-by gang bangers, and drug abuse. Their little dreams provide a stark contrast to the grim world in which they live, and this is where the show gets most of its humor. By contrasting Willie and Esther’s hopes with their reality, Bronson achieves some charmingly ironic moments. When Willie maintains that it will only take a couple thousand dollars to achieve his dreams, we laugh at the enduring naivete and eternal optimism that keep him from seeing how desperate his situation really is.

Unfortunately, in his attempt to please the crowd with easy laughs Bronson often lets his characters down by sacrificing truth for a laugh line. Much of the show’s humor results from Willie and Esther’s bumbling around and mispronouncing words. Willie speaks of “Einstein’s theory of relatives” and of going into the bank and “stimulating a weapon.” When Esther talks about her alcoholism, she says she may be in the initial stages of “roses of the liver.” But these moments don’t seem right because they make the characters sound dumber than they appear to be. And the sitcom bickering of Willie and Esther, which recalls the Sun-Times comic strip Willy ‘n Ethel, is a little grating. When one character calls the other “fool” and the response is “Who you calling fool, fool?” one can only recall many lame episodes of Norman Lear television shows.

The audience laughed quite a bit the afternoon I attended the performance. But it seemed to me that the comedy worked best when the audience grew quiet and no one was laughing at all.