By Neil LaBute
Produced by Profile Theatre, Chicago
A Panorama of LaBute’s World
Profiles Theatre’s long relationship with playwright Neil LaBute has resulted in a strong enough sense of trust for them to collaborate on an unusual kind of premiere. Vices and Virtues, now playing at the Alley Stage, is two night’s worth of short one-act plays, each with their own casts and directors, each being performed for the first time in Chicago, and in some cases, ever. They alternate performances, with Vices containing five mini-plays, and Virtues containing six. Despite the contrasting titles, there is no major difference in the overall tone or theme of each collection. All of them are distinctly LaBute in their harsh exposure of the crueler, shameful, and more vulnerable sides of normal people. The two collections also contain about the same proportion of hits and misses, so people who enjoy one night (and a Profiles subscriber is likely a LaBute fan) would do well to see the other.
I happened to see both shows on a Sunday, when Virtues is presented first. Good Luck (in Farsi), the first of that collection, features Sarah Brooks and Sarah Ruggles as rival actresses at an audition who vacillate between trying to intimidate each other and craving each other’s support. Besides being an interesting character study in itself, it also typifies what is best in each of LaBute’s short plays. We get a simple set (designed by Greg Pinsoneault), two actors who are deeply attentive to playing off each other’s every word and expression, and a director (in this case, Brianne Duncan Fiore) who understands how to use the intimate and bisected Alley space to influence which side of a confrontation the audience is more sympathetic to. Happy Hour, directed by Kay Martinovich, starts Vices off in the same manner. In it, Eleni Pappageorge plays a woman who approaches an engaged man (Brennan Roche) at a dance club for sex, and is torn between admiring his fidelity and wrestling with the new and unpleasant experience of rejection.
LaBute has structured both collections so that they open with their second-strongest plays. The middle submissions waver more in quality. In the second play of each collection, LaBute ignores the typical playwrights’ advice that a short play should very quickly provide enough information for an audience to become invested in the characters. Instead, LaBute provides a few minutes of incoherent swearing before letting us know half-way through what is going on, and then the situation seems implausible. However, both collections quickly recover with one-person monologues, performed strikingly and hilariously by Drew Halliday and Tamara Chambers, respectively. Virtues also contains the only explicitly political work in either show, Swallowing Bicycles, which while not providing particularly original commentary on the relationship between playwright and censorious producer, is worth seeing for its passionate and articulate defense of artists.
It is also notable that each show ends with by far its strongest play. Indeed, Mulberry Bush, the ending of Virtues, contains the most difficult conflict of any of the shorts, and one in which our view of the characters is upended with nearly every line. Since Vices and Virtues are so similar, audience members should be in a good position after seeing one to decide whether they want to see more of the same. Both shows drag a bit in the middle despite their overall quality, and that’s partly due to their writing, but it is also a built-in risk of these kinds of short-play festivals. However, that the plays all came from the same author gives them a sense of unity that this structure usually lacks, and they provide audiences with an opportunity to see a huge number of talented Chicago actors.
Reviewed January 24, 2016
For more information, see Vices and Virtues’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Alley Stage, 4147 N Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are $40, patron who purchase tickets to one evening may purchase a discounted ticket to the second program for $10 off regular price. Students and seniors receive a $5 discount on all performances. To order, call 773-549-1815. Vices runs Thursdays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm, Virtues runs Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Show run through March 6. Running time for each is two hours and ten minutes, with one intermission.