Directed by Marti Lyons
Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company
Crime Drama Creates Noir Atmosphere
Strawdog Theatre Company is celebrating its 100th production with a dark, but fun new heist drama. Written by company member John Henry Roberts, The Sweeter Option is the kind of story that is presented onstage because that was the most convenient medium for the author, rather than because that’s really the best way of telling it. However, even with some gimmicks, such as non-chronological scenes, I was interested in seeing the characters double-cross and brutalize each other in pursuit of a sweeter life.
We first meet Tucker and Irene (Sam Guinan-Nyhart and Michaela Petro) when he is carrying her passed-out drunk into a cabin. She wakes up and is alarmed when he informs her he is an agent for the insurance company that backs the grocery store chain her husband embezzled from. Hoping to recover the $400,000, Tucker visited her house, but someone fired a gun and he fled with her. She’s not about to divulge anything, but then they are attacked by a brother and sister pair. Though the pair are actually Irene’s agents, after the first of the play’s many back-stabbings, she and Tucker up allies of convenience with blood on their hands.
In the next scene, which chronologically came earlier, we learn Tucker was actually a private investigator for Hertz, recovering stolen vehicles. One such vehicle was rented by Carolyn (Emily Tate), the mistress of Irene’s husband. She admits that he stole the money, but has since disappeared, and she is frantic. (We recall Irene’s goon observed her burning something in her furnace.) Carolyn offers to split the money with Tucker if he confronts Irene, and woos him by promising life could be much better if he could be someone else. Tucker agrees, which is why he concocts his story about representing the insurance company.
As his alliance with Carolyn disintegrates, Tucker and Irene grow closer. Not that they’re stupid enough to let their guard down, but I did believe they developed real feelings for each other. The strongest scenes were the ones in Tucker’s home, where he and Irene rest in anticipation of fleeing to Canada. Michaela Petro, who had so far portrayed Irene with nearly unflappable ruthlessness, seems glad to have found a kindred spirit, and reveals an interest in drawing. She thinks art is for capturing beauty, and sketches Tucker. Guinan-Nyhart plays Tucker as a man slightly less comfortable being this conniving, but who discovers an aptitude for it. He berates himself for screwing up, and his desire to change his identity is rooted in the trauma of how he lost his family and a more benign talent, but he’s much more suspicious of everyone and prone to haste than Irene.
The rest of the cast do fine in roles that are mostly only present for one or two scenes. What’s annoying about the show, though, is that the most we see of them is when they move the set around during transitions. It’s a fine set by Joanna Iwanicka, and quite clever in how it folds up and reveals different surfaces. But director Marti Lyons’s solution to filling the gaps in the action is to have Tucker stare bewildered at the other figures moving through his life while cheery music plays under pink lights. It’s not a terrible choice, but it really drives home that this story doesn’t particularly benefit from live performance. The best set is the abstract car because it engages the most with the audience’s imagination.
Despite my quibbles with how the story was presented, I still enjoyed it. Tucker and Irene are fun characters once we get to know them, though that takes a while. The play seems set in the 60s, but there’s nothing annoying about that, it just creates a short-hand for what kind of world this is. Ryan Bourque’s fight choreography contributes a lot of excitement to the evening, and the script in turn heightens the gentler moments in between all the scheming. I still don’t know why the scenes are out of order, and it can be confusing, but I think most people will follow closely enough to remain interested.
Reviewed March 2, 2015
For more information, see The Sweeter Option’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are $28. To order, call 866-811-4111 or visit strawdog.org. Plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm through March 28. Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission.