Playwright: Philip Dawkins. At: Victory Gardens Theatre at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; email@example.com; $35-$50. Runs through: Dec. 30
First, set your story in a clock shop. Then locate these constant reminders of temporality on the banks of the Chicago river (any river will do, but our cityas a popular show proclaimed in 2010has a special connection to water). Add a playbill note where the playwright declares his inspiration to have been a country graveyard. If that's not enough to dispel any lingering doubts as to the unlikelihood of your play being a cheerful romp, declare the first words uttered onstage to be, "Nelly was the first of the Fail girls to die."
Proper mood having been established, our narrative arc traces the progress of Henry and Marietta Failbottom (whose surname is truncated to "Fail" at Ellis Island), their three daughters and foster son. In 1900, after the parents' lakeside drive in their newfangled automobile is tragically interrupted by the washout from the Eastland disaster, the spinster sisters embark on their respective careers: by 1928, Gertrude is the proprietor of the family business, Nelly is its resident engraver and jazz-age beauty, Jenny achieves fame in competitive swimming and reclusive brother John finds his calling as a naturalist. One day, a high-rolling bachelor swaggers into the shop and vows to marry one of the Fail siblings, little suspecting the course that his fortunes will take as he pursues his elusive goal.
It may be argued that Philip Dawkins' chronocentric metaphors on the theme of death's inevitability and the need to continue productive lives following the loss of loved ones are better suited to the leisurely contemplation of the page than the kinetic medium of the stage. Director Seth Bockley has assembled a company well-trained in anthropomorphic improvisationimpersonating assorted timepieces, say, or exotic pet animals. So engagingly are these fancies introduced that even when confronted with imaginative eccentricity in the extreme (Janet Ulrich Brooks as a full-grown python, for example), we chuckle and accept the suspended disbelief asked of us.
Dawkins' auspicious debut with The Homosexuals in 2011 increases the risks inherent in this second venture, its dazzling wordplay and physical inventiveness too easily verging on the precocity associated with the Strange Tree Group's more introverted exercises. Bockley's ensemble never allows their premise to spill over into ham-handed camp, however, but deftly navigates the artistic clutter to invoke the E.L. Doctorow-nostalgic tone at the heart of Dawkins' delicately romantic text.