Playwright: Lisa Kron . At: Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston. Phone: 847-475-1875; $23-$38. Runs through: Dec. 14. Well. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Lisa Kron's Well is clever. But for many seeing this play in its Chicago-area debut at Next Theatre, Well will come off as being too clever for its own good.
Kron is an openly lesbian writer and performer best known for her one-woman monologues. With Well, Kron shook up her routine by playing herself in a play of sorts featuring other actors and her mother ( or at least an actress as her mother ) .
As befits the play's title, Well is Kron's attempt to show how people as individuals and in society can heal and get better. Kron's two examples are her mother's community organizing efforts to help foster integration in 1960s Lansing, Mich., and her own experiences in the allergy unit of a Chicago hospital.
But the problem is that Kron's acting company ( particularly her sleepy mother in a La-Z-Boy recliner ) hijack her attempts to tell the story—going so far as to question the play's haphazard structure and information gaps.
Laurels of critical praise greeted Well's two productions off-Broadway in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006, particularly for the two leading ladies ( Kron herself and Jayne Houdyshell were nominated for Tony Awards ) . The play's unconventional storytelling, which was likened at times to Pirandello of Six Characters in Search of an Author-fame, was also praised for constantly going off the rails to break down the 'fourth wall' between audiences watching actors reinterpreting past events.
For Next's production under Damon Kiely's direction, we unfortunately have a stand-in playing the 'role' of author Lisa Kron. Lia Mortensen does her best, but having an actorly interloper takes away Kron's truly 'personal' agony of wondering why her mother can't get well from her debilitating life-long fatigue.
The general acting company of Lily Mojekwu, Andre Teamer, James Krag and Kat McDonnel all are meant to look uncomfortable by the weird shifts between the two stories. But the company at the performance I attended seemed more perplexed by the audience's general refusal to buy into the play, despite the actors' best attempts to get extra laughs by affecting funny voices and doing contorted facial expressions.
One element that truly succeeds in Next's Well is veteran actor Mary Ann Thebus, who fits comfortably into Kron's mother's shoes as wonderfully as Jack Magaw's homey set design of a wood-paneled suburban living room. Thebus rightfully comes off an everyday mother strangely trapped in someone's flailing attempt of a thought-provoking theatrical experience.
Though theater fans may enjoy Well as a non-conformist play/monologue, it's more likely to try the patience of audiences who don't care for self-important deconstructionism—especially if all that clever self-awareness gets in the way of telling a good story.