Playwright: Seth Bockley. At: Collaboraction at Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter. Phone: 312-226-9633; $25 ( $15/25 and under ) Runs through: Dec. 14. Photo by Jeff Stella
This world-premiere adaptation of George Saunders's short story is another stylishly realized Collaboraction project offering a strong narrative line, pitch-perfect technical execution, youthful angst and ingratiating performances, none more so than that by eye-catching Lucas Neff in his professional debut as the title character. Jon is an adolescent arbiter of commercial taste—cool clothes, video games, junk food—raised in the controlled and exploitative hot-house environment of a sealed marketing research center in which, inadvertently, sexual awakening leads to recognition of stunted humanity. It's borderline sci-fi with echoes of The Island of Dr. Moreau and R.U.R., in which not-quite-humans jumpstart their evolution.
One of the challenges is figuring out whom the hero is in this 85-minute evening. Jon ( Neff ) is the narrator and largest role but he's not the mover and shaker. It's his love interest, Carolyn ( Kelly O'Sullivan ) , whose pregnancy motivates her to push herself and a reluctant Jon towards the unsure, insecure, far-less-glamorous world outside. But she's not the hero, either, although her actions are instinctively heroic. The real risk-taker is the fully human, weary, middle-aged marketing executive Larry Slippen ( yeah, symbolic name ) , who, little by little, questions the control games and selfish exploitation of the kids he supervises. Himself the father of 'normal' children ( as exposition reveals ) , Larry finally follows his better instincts to assist Carolyn and Jon. Carolyn is the catalyst for change, but Larry's change of heart and direct action precipitates the climax and resolution of the story.
It's not as heavy as it sounds. The story zips along with humor, edge and a sardonic tribute to the millions of images which bombard us, many of them programmed into the institutional kids as coded sense-memories. 'LI-4490' one will say, or 'LI-9867 Claymation Chicken Little' to instantly recall some specific commercial or set of images. Orphaned or purchased kids, they've been implanted with fake family memories, too. Utilizing a box set that looks much like a sterile office suite, the profusion of images flashing through Jon's mind is projected on the neutral walls at crucial moments ( credit Mike Tutaj, Sam Poretta, Jeremy Getz and Courtney O'Neill ) , greatly enriching the show's visual dynamic.
Under director/adapter Seth Bockley, nine actors play 12 speaking roles ( and other non-speaking bits ) in a seamless and fluid ensemble. In addition to Neff and O'Sullivan, Guy Massey as Larry is just cynical enough, just weary enough, just troubled enough to pull it off in a mostly quiet way.
Saunders and/or Bockley do take one shortcut: the journey from sex to an understanding of genuine love and commitment isn't quite as instantaneous as portrayed. It's a major synaptic leap, a flaw, if you stop to analyze it. So don't. Just kick back and enjoy another good one from Collaboration.