Directed by Thrisa Hodits
Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company, Chicago
A Harmless Little Fable about the Obvious
When Strawdog Theatre Company moves into a different space, it will be interesting how the company changes its lineup. Recently, they’ve been experimenting with small-scale shows on off-nights and when the mainstage (where they do works like After Miss Julie) is dark in a room to the side called Hugen Hall. Cheap and usually short, these productions are a sort of bonus to their Lakeview and Uptown fans who may want something to do on a weekday night. Or, at least, I imagine With Love and a Major Organ, a product of the 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival with modified Chicago references, will be most pleasing to people like me, who live nearby, and therefore don’t have to invest the entire evening in it. The show is simple, well-produced, has an often-irritating script, and is only an hour long.
Following some pre-recorded piano chords at the top of the show, a mother (Melissa Riemer) informs us that her son was conceived by two broken-hearted people, and therefore, is destined to be broken-hearted as well. As a preventive measure, she had his heart surgically replaced with a piece of paper. This is meant to numb his capacity for feeling. He’s twenty-nine now, and she is still in stiflingly close contact with him. While he works, she goes on speed-dates, at the suggestion of a Google app she has been using as a therapist. Audience members have the pleasure of being her overwhelmed partners.
Meanwhile, the son (Tom Murphy) has attracted the attention of another blue line rider (Abby Pierce) during his morning commute. They exchange a brief conversation in which he mostly complains about the passengers, and she becomes instantly obsessed with him. Despite him ignoring her or brushing her off several times over several weeks, the Blue Line Rider (the characters’ names are revealed slowly) tape-records daily messages addressed to him. Eventually, she starts slipping them into his pockets in an attempt to regain his attention. He returns a tape saying only “I can’t.” More frustrated than ever, the Blue Line Rider rips out her heart, and leaves it on a seat for the man to find. He takes it, it warms up to him, and the Blue Line Rider shows up at his mother’s house shortly after cyberstalking him, intent on living there. However, the mother says her son has disappeared. It seems having a real heart has indeed awakened his emotional life, and he won’t return it, or live with either woman.
Clearly, to use a term despised by Sarah Ruhl, this play is rather whimsical. But where Ruhl would use alluring poetry to establish clever metaphors, Lederer’s are bizarre and off-putting, such as when the Blue Line Rider compares her innards to spaghetti and meatballs, or the mother makes an even ickier quip involving golfballs. The play never feels threatening; Pierce plays her character as a selfish and stubborn dimwit, not a maniac, and director Thrisa Hodits takes a light-hearted approach to the Blue Line Rider’s behavior. But the man is so emphatically, consistently disinterested in her, I didn’t understand either her motivation for pursuing him, or how she failed to receive the message.
Besides that the main character’s actions make no sense, Lederer wound up padding a show that’s only an hour long with several scenes depicting the mother’s dating life. Though Reimer has a strong comedic sense and is adaptable to surprises, her monologues are too similar to each other to justify there being so many of them. Tom Murphy, as her son, has enough boyish charm and wistfulness to make her behavior, at least, plausible within the surreal world of the play, and as his character grows, we finally, near the end, see a little in him of what the Blue Line Rider did. Scenic designer Ashley Ann Woods provided an impressive painted backdrop of a Blue Line car, and an elegant middle-class living room for the home the young woman invades. Those factors, and loyalty to Strawdog before their transition, could motivate a patron to make the small investment of time and money necessary to see With Love and a Major Organ. But the show’s moral about self-awareness and the importance of believing people when they say they’re not ready for something is hardly earth-shattering. It very much feels like the best of a fringe festival.
Playing at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N Broadway St, Chicago. Tickets are $15; to order, call 866-811-4111. Performances are Saturdays at 4:00 pm, Sundays at 12:00 pm, and Mondays and Tuesdays at 8:00 pm through October 14, with an additional performance on October 14 at 8:00 pm. Running time is sixty minutes.