Playwright: Stephen Cone
At: Bailiwick Repertory
Phone: ( 773 ) 883-1090; $20
Runs through: April 10
At first, Just Wanderer seems to parody a classic English mystery transposed to America: a stormy night, a lone figure at an isolated country house, disconnected telephones, a power failure, inexplicable occurrences and a threatening intruder.
However, this is no thriller, no parody but a solemn study of an anguished man, Anthony, a retired police officer. Retreating to his beach house to write his memoirs, he's confronted by Max, an adolescent boy who proves to be an alter ego and harbinger of death summoned from Anthony's own conflicted emotions.
Author Stephen Cone's premise is challenging yet sound, and the 80-minute play has moments of surprise and power, but there are big chunks missing. In a play in which character—rather than story—is everything, we don't understand Anthony. Either Cone doesn't have a clear or comprehensive idea of Anthony's who, what, why and how, or he keeps it to himself relying on his mysterious and moody drama to convey sense impressions rather than facts.
Anthony is a 28-year veteran cop who's fearful, hesitant and panic-stricken when confronted by Max. Where's the cop-like control? And why is he suddenly writing his memoirs? Cone doesn't provide motivations. Anthony's marriage has disintegrated but it seems unimportant to him. Cone gives it no more weight than he gives other things. The memoirs begin to reveal some of Anthony's backstory, but not enough. Not until the play's closing seconds do we learn why Anthony's alter ego takes the form of Max. Until then, we're puzzled why Anthony is beset by so many demons, as Anthony and Max swap emotional but completely vague moments understood only by them. For example, Anthony grows furious at sketches Max has made, but the audience never learns what they show. It's a dramatic but hollow moment, for it reveals nothing to the audience.
Mark A. Steel as Anthony begins in stilted fashion with an awkward expository phone call, and then is required to read his memoirs out loud as he writes them ( which writers don't do ) . Steel improves as the play proceeds, maneuvering through mad Anthony's emotional swings with bursts of power and energy as he moves towards his final resignation. As Max, Tyler Monroe brings boyish charm and youthful confidence to his Chicago debut. He's an actor to watch. Director David Zak accepts the play's earnestness on its own terms, having his actors bridge the play's gaps with sheer personal commitment.
Some viewers were very moved by play's end and one can see why. Just Wanderer is a serious man/boy story without sexual exploitation that tackles complex issues and emotions. But the play's leaps of faith and character often make its artistic ambitions feel artificial and even pretentious.