Playwright: John Guare
At: Signal Ensemble at the Chopin,
1543 W. Division
Phone: 773-347-1350; $15-$20
Runs through: Dec. 20
The central visual metaphor for our play is a mischievous work of art by Vassily Kandinsky, suspended from the ceiling on a single wire, upon which it slowly revolves—a mounting position necessitated by the picture being actually two pictures, each painted on a different side of the canvas. Author John Guare likewise invites us—indeed, forces us—to consider his parable from several vantage points.
The incident launching our story occurs one night when art dealers Ouisa and Flan ( a.k.a. Louisa and Flanders ) Kittridge are attempting to interest a 'Midas-rich' Afrikaner acquaintance in a dubiously obtained Cezanne. They are interrupted, however, by a young African-American man seeking assistance following a mugging outside their building. He identifies himself as a classmate of the Kittridge's Ivy League children, also claiming kinship with a celebrity beloved of liberal sensibilities. He is educated, articulate, courteous and charming—traits cinching the million-dollar deal for his hosts, who only later learn that their helpful angel is, in fact, a con artist adept at invoking the generosity of pretentious materialists just like them.
As long as our impostor targets only those who can easily afford to press money and favors upon him—thus invalidating any charges of actual theft—we revel in the creative savvy of his Robin Hood forays. Who wouldn't applaud such upwardly-mobile incentive, however misguided the means of pursuing his goals? It's only after we see him employing the same tactics on humble citizens—you know, like us—that his mission takes on more menacing overtones. When, inevitably, someone sics the police on him, he appeals to his protectors, promising to be the perfect son—so unlike their own neglected, hostile, privileged progeny. Is he truly ready to reform, or has his patter merely grown slicker with practice? Will Ouisa be gulled a second time by her maternal egotism, or has her experience genuinely enlightened her beyond her own narrow social boundaries?
The verbal agility required to simultaneously convey these multiple scenarios is one reason Guare's 1990 rumination on class warfare in America is so rarely performed nowadays. But Signal Ensemble has long demonstrated a knack for restoring fresh immediacy to deceptively shopworn texts, and under the briskly paced direction of Ronan Marra, a cast, led by Bryson Engelen as the mercurial trickster, inhabit their roles with unswerving conviction, while the cozy quarters downstairs at the Chopin facilitate a tidy 90-minute running time for a caveat more timely today than ever.