Playwright: Adam Rapp
At: Circle Theatre, 7300 W. Madison, Forest Park
Phone: 708-771-0700; $22-$24
Through Feb. 18
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
Who knew that Adam Rapp harbored a teenage-male-geek streak? As a playwright known for wallowing in human suffering in works like the 2005 Pulitzer finalist drama Red Light Winter as well as slash-your-wrist tomes like Nocturne and Blackbird, Rapp shows a lighter side by featuring multiple fart jokes in Stone Cold Dead Serious.
Rapp's work has been well represented on Chicago-area stages, so it's only natural that Circle Theatre would want to dig up his 2003 off-Broadway drama, Stone Cold Dead Serious. The play's supremely dysfunctional Ledbetter family lives in Norridge, making the play 'local' since it's littered with references to Chicago suburbs. Stone Cold Dead Serious also serves as a meaty vehicle for actors to gnash their teeth into, even if the modernized 'hero's journey' plot outline cribbed from Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth is utterly nonsensical.
Ryan Heindl plays 16-year-old hero Wynne, a video-game addict out to right the many wrongs of his family. Father Cliff ( Paul Joseph ) is strung out on pain medication due to his injured back. He also has extreme incontinence and an addiction to shopping on QVC. Mother Linda ( Jennifer Mathews ) is an overworked waitress who suddenly becomes a Catholic-holic. And why wouldn't she see when her daughter Shaylee ( Darci Nalepa ) is a suicidal runaway/junkie/prostitute with signs of hepatitis?
By laying on so much dysfunction, Rapp comes off as a naughty high schooler throwing in as much grief in a play-writing assignment to shock and torment the stuffy English teacher who had the gall to assign it as possible. The plot device of Wynne fighting in a televised life-or-death video-game struggle to win a prize of $1 million only reinforces its juvenile impressions.
Though Stone Cold Dead Serious grasps your attention throughout, it doesn't fully work as a satire on American dysfunctional families. Instead, the production comes off as a meandering suburbanized hero's journey that switches schizophrenically from maudlin drama to wacky farce.
What's really admirable is the amount of talent and artistic skill Circle Theatre lavishes on this uneven piece. Director Joanie Schultz has assembled a winning ensemble and crew that are fully committed to their work, from the complex sound design of Peter J. Storms to Heindl's maelstrom performance.
As Wynne, Heindl moves just like a video-game character, particularly as he dashes about to reveal Bob Knuth's ingenious multiple-location set of gray pixels and fold-out furniture. The rest of the cast also brilliantly play the weirdos Wynne encounters with plenty of disturbing humor.
Stone Cold Dead Serious is not a great work, but more of an intriguing quirk of Rapp's rising career. It's also the perfect play to take any teenage males you know who profess to hate live theater. They'll be won over after a few farts get ripped.