Directed by Kate Hendrickson
Produced by Trap Door Theatre
Cookies Uneven, Need to be Thicker
One thing the avant-garde should never be is intellectually lazy. Nestled in a tiny theatre at the end of an alley, Trap Door Theatre has enjoyed a long exchange with Eastern European artists and plays. However, their newest production, Cookie Play, is an original work by Ken Pristininzi. Although the acting, design, and direction are all done with great passion, the script drags out a bare bones story that is mainly an excuse to ironically serve up the homeland security rhetoric of 2004 for mockery.
The story begins with a family and a pair of goons dancing to house music. This I enjoyed, because the goons, named Frank (Mike Steele) and Frank (Carl Wisniewski), are fluid dancers who could come up with enough moves to fill a pre-show that was extended due to weather delaying some audience members. They are occasionally joined by Harriet Penini (Lynday Rose Kane), whose house this is, and her adult son Tommy (Gage Wallace) while Harriet’s husband Jim (Chris Popio) sits despondently on a flag-draped couch watching a ridiculously outdated cabinet tv. Mike Mroch’s set design is at once quaint and jank as a colorful parody of suburban comfort. Once the show begins, it’s all creepy distorted noises (thanks to sound designer Danny Rockett) and a child’s voiceover, while the Franks drag Tommy away and his mother retreats into reading The Red Balloon.
The Franks soon show up at the Peninis’ house in Dearborn, demanding the parents’ cooperation. It seems Tommy was a data analyst in an intelligence agency, but leaked sensitive information. The Franks have tried torturing him into revealing where he stored some flash drives, but he’s too tough, so they’re hoping his parents will get through to him. That, or allow their house to be used as a black site while the Franks torture their son some more.
It’s an interesting set-up; too bad it takes up half the play. If the idea of paranoid clowns using a private residence as a torture site reminds you of Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, you should know one important difference is Durang’s characters were far less stupid, craven, and obnoxious. Jim is a Reaganite and traditional Catholic. He’s suspicious of universities and other cultures, but he sincerely opines that America’s government only ever does good (about the most un-conservative statement imaginable). Harriet is the liberal who raised Tommy to be curious and respect everybody, but the moment the Franks show up, she begins unconvincingly posing as a right-wing fanatic. That, along with the trays of fresh cookies she delivers to the Franks, is supposed to win their favor, but she is in such a state of panic she babbles incoherently and is responsible for the communication failure that drags the play out endlessly. It’s Harriet who is willing to compromise anything if she gets to see her son again, even his safety, while Jim asserts his constitutional rights.
It’s not that Kane’s acting is deficient, she throws herself into the role whole-hardheartedly. But her character is written to be at about a ten for almost the entire show. Her attempts at mimicking nationalist rhetoric are meant to sound stupid for the amusement of the in-crowd, but are pretty much the exact things Jim and the Franks say, and yet the Franks easily manipulate her. Wisniewski’s Frank is a perverse man-child with a hair-trigger temper and a fixation on Harriet’s cookies. Steele’s Frank is more adolescent in his moodiness and fixation on Harriet’s “bosom.” Again, the actors completely sell the characters, and keep the energy sky-high, but don’t have enough to do. Wallace and Popio don’t get nearly as many lines, but they are committed to their physicality, which is more on the realistic side.
I also took issue with the play’s attitude toward gay sex. Harriet is an obsessive, neurotic mother who on at least one occasion was severely abusive to Tommy. It’s strongly implied that Tommy, besides having weird religious hang-ups and a case of arrested development, was seduced by a Muslim man, which is why he betrayed the government and smuggled the flash drives in his rectum. The Franks also have homoerotic inclinations, which they carry out in baby-talk, and at one point the less mature one shouts his mother was a drunk piece of white trash. It’s an outdated Freudian misunderstanding that I hope the company won’t export to Eastern Europe.
This piece nails the avant-garde aesthetic fans of Trap Door’s work love. Every actor gives their strongest effort, and the two Franks are especially funny. The designers created a rich world in such a small space, and the final scene is the play’s strongest. There’s a good premise and a worthy theme in how much people will twist their supposed values in defense of what they love/covet. But I shouldn’t have lost patience or gotten distracted so many times in a one-act, and looking around I saw lots of other bored, irritated faces once the jabs at George W. Bush ended. Accounting for the late start, I think the show still went beyond its intended ninety minutes. Trimming the babble would help it a lot. So would deeper characters.
Reviewed January 8, 2015
For more information, see Cookie Play’s page at Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 West Cortland Ave, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-384-0494, or visit www.trapdoortheatre.com. Plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through February 14. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays with 2-for-1 on Fridays, $25 on Sundays. Running time is 90-100 minutes.