REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Illegal Use of Hands


By James Stillamerican blues theater

Directed by Sandy Shinner

Produced by American Blues Theater

At the Richard Christiansen Theater at the Victory Gardens Biograph theater, Chicago

Slowly paced and unfunny dark comedy leaves audiences wondering

Amazingly, the folks at American Blues Theater usually pick stage worthy plays and they knock them out of the park  Not here with James Still’s Illegal use of Hands. This dark comedy gets a 15 yard penalty for being boring with few funny lines and a meandering go-nowhere plot. I can’t imagine why American Blues Theater picked this dud? Perhaps because James Still  was a friend of the company? I’m sorry to report that this 90 minute work wondered aimlessly with enough holes in the plot to let any runner through.

Set in a small town, we meet two early middle aged guys – Roy (Howie Johnson) in a red football jersey and his play, Cody (Steve Key) the returning former local high school  quarterback. It is late night and the two end up at Wallace’s (Dennis Zacek) house somewhere out in the sticks.  That’s about all the plot that I’m sure about. It is unclear exactly why Roy and Cody arrived at Wallace’s home. Did there car breakdown? There is an on-going joke about how  terrible Chevy cars are by Wallace. The two ex-jocks claim they need to use the phone but when Roy does call, he never asks anyone to pick them up despite Cody’s constant nagging. Are thy really stranded? Was there another reason to be at Wallace’s place?  Was he the referee who made a ball call that cost the two their homecoming game? That is never made clear.

american blues theater

It seems that the setup was done to allow Roy to vent on what a loser he is in life; that he can’t even have fond memories of his potential glory days in high school. During his several rants, Howie Johnson not only flubs lines but he races over potential funny line rendering them flat. The muddled plot give Steve Key’s Cody not much to do. We never learn much about him despite references to him being gay and him being imprisoned nor why he has returned to the rural town he left years ago.

Equally vague is the character of  Wallace. Dennis Zacek’s returned to the stage since 1987 as the quirky Wallace was noteworthy for his nimble acting that found him nailing his lines garnering all the humor contained with him adding small bits that got more laughs. His scene where he “teaches”  Roy and Cody how to appreciate Scotch whiskey was a hoot!

The press notes state “It’s a story about revenge, glory, and being a man – if only the characters could agree on what they can’t remember.”  What?  The vagueness of the plot, the many unanswered questions and the extremely slow pace of the show left many in the audience napping throughout. Few laughs could be heard from the opening night audience. My main problem was the script. It simply wasn’t funny, merely a rant about Roy’s lousy life.  The football references symbolized by the trophy falls flat as the antics by Roy and Cody ring hollow. Roy comes off as a loser in life; Cody is a mystery; and Wallace is also simply quirky. I’d like to know more about Wallace since he was the only one who made me laugh.  Illegal Use of Hands is a long, tedious, wondering affair devoid of humor. It is , indeed, a loser. Don’t give up on American Blues Theater, they usually mount terrific shows.

Not Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: September 6,2012

For more info checkout the Illegal use of Hands page at

At the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, 773.871.3000,,  tickets $29 – $39,  Thursday & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 5 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm, running time is 90 minutes without intermission, through September 30, 2012

Leave a Reply