Playwright: Alistair McDowell. At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; www.steeptheatre.com; $10-$35. Runs through: Aug. 15
Audience members scrutinizing their playbills for this Steep Theatre production may have attributed to printing error two actors listed for a single role, but, in fact, ambiguous taxonomical clues are an integral component of stories including among their furnishings a bona fide time machine. Alastair McDowell's transchronological coach is no gleaming Tardis or sleek DeLorean DMC-12 twinkling with flashing lights and spinning dials, but is fashioned from a cardboard box that might have once held a refrigerator, propped up in the corner of a subsidized-housing apartment in a district dubbed by the BBC "The Worst Place to Live in the UK."
Luke, its owner, is a bookish 19-year-old looking to distance himself from a family consisting of his brother Rob, whose drug-deal profits are their sole source of income, and who, literally, leads their junkie father around on a dog leash ( "so I always know where he is" ). Luke's severe stutter entitles him to government disability benefits, enabling him to live alone, but his privacy is constantly interrupted by nebbishy sidekick Greg, whose ambition is to join in the criminal activities constituting the neighborhood's exclusive economic opportunities. Offering employment is newcomer Ben, whose leather blazer and London accent immediately identify him as a petty-hustler villain even before he announces his goal of building his own empire through exploitation of citizens demoralized by poverty and despair. He is intrigued by Luke's invention.
The best science-fiction is frequently rooted in circumstances most needing fantasy, so it should come as no surprise to find it co-existing with the squalor of the "In-Yer-Face" school of British drama. Playgoers versed in the possibilities associated with time-travel allegories might anticipate the individual components referenced in McDowell's pursuit of a resolution, but its analogical foundations may prove more elusive. Is Luke's device a weapon for destroying evil, a means of suicide for the remorseful, or a promise of deliverance for the pure in heart? Are brutal environments doomed to breed only brutes? Does the telephone call arriving just before the final curtain portend salvation for our hero, or more misery?
Robin Witt's directorial expertise with intimate settings is invoked to appropriately disturbing extremes by the demands of McDowell's script ( the vulnerability of an innocent goldfish swimming in a bowl, for example ). A precision-drilled ensemble led by Curtis Edward Jackson as the reluctant boy-genius navigate the intricacies of their pinpoint-specific dialects under the instruction of Kendra Thulin with a verbal dexterity matched by their physical mastery of Christina Gorman's full-contact violence to render McDowell's plot, if not exactly logical, always riveting.