A Triumph of Cynicism | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Triumph of Cynicism 

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BIG TIME

Remains Theatre Ensemble

at the Goodman Theatre Studio

The back wall tells it all.

The most brilliant thing about Kevin Rigdon's brilliantly protean set for Big Time is its rough back wall. Cast in a cool, soft "natural" light, its troweled-on surface communicates all the right yuppie values: sophistication, aggression, nonchalance, a certain stylish austerity, a certain astringency. Very Manhattan, it supplies the perfect home environment for the play's central character, an ambitious young international banker named Paul.

But bring the lights up to office level, and the wall's crannies begin to suggest an enormous map of the world--the sort you'd expect to find in a strategy room at the Pentagon. Or a corporate boardroom. Or Paul's head.

And when the lights take an ominous skew, the wall shows pockmarks, like bullet holes. As if people had been stood up against it and shot.

Rigdon's wall, in short, embodies the three ostensibly separate worlds that start falling in on one another in Keith Reddin's triumphantly cynical new play. In the script as much as in that remarkable wall, the sleek affluence of the yup life-style, the impersonal maneuverings of international finance, and the bloody mess of third world revolution are shown to be elements of the same structure. And the element you see depends entirely on the quality of the light.

Of course, some people like to screen their light through smoked glass and Levolors. Paul's one. A would-be hotshot with an MBA and some really sharp suits, Paul runs around the world helping friendly despots set up their Swiss IRAs. His latest assignment is a Middle Eastern oil state, one of those cousinarchies, run by members of a single family a la Saudi Arabia. Cordially, confidently, Paul advises a certain Hassan on the virtues of California real estate and gets taken around to the royal tailor.

Meanwhile, back at home, Paul's lover, Fran, is sharing her anomie and her bed with Paul's pal, a big-time newsweekly photographer named Peter. Paul returns and--cordially, confidently--nips that arrangement in the bud. He may not be particularly well liked, but Paul's in control.

That is, until Hassan's government starts teetering under pressure from insurgents. Paul flies out to protect his bank's investments, gets captured by the insurgents, and has to be ransomed. Fran goes back to Peter.

What happens after that is the triumphantly cynical part. Reddin's got no particular affection for anybody here. Except maybe Nadav, the rebel leader. The rest of them are consummately selfish, myopic fools--incapable, for all their cunning and intelligence, of seeing their complicity in the events that ultimately overtake them; incapable of relating their personal bad faith to the climate of bad faith in which they live. As much as they'd love to succeed, Paul and the others are fated to have everything they do explode in their faces because their sense of the world is crucially flawed. Incomplete. They simply can't read the writing on the wall.

Big Time, in other words, is a comedy. And an occasionally hilarious one at that. Reddin populates the edges of the play with the strangest interludes and people. There's Diane, the fast-rising exec, whose personal history consists of a string of horrendous tragedies--each of which she relates with a bland fatalism. And Ted, a pompous slime of a Harvard nerd, who expresses his hostility by means of an infuriating punctiliousness.

But then, the center of the play's got its share of oddities and vicious caricatures, too. As played by Martha Lavey Greene, Fran's a frighteningly empty apparition, moving from moment to moment in a sort of dream search for something she can't begin to define. Similarly, Steve Prutting's Peter hasn't the moral subtlety it takes to distinguish between a picture of war victims in El Salvador and one of Molly Ringwald at a party. His languid nihilism's all the more shocking because he seems initially to be the one sanely absurd character in the show. It's a measure of Reddin's cynicism that we're not allowed to hold on even to good old Pete. This, in its essence and despite its often slick humor, is the most relentlessly pessimistic work by Reddin so far.

William L. Petersen's the perfect Paul, at his most comfortable when he's least sincere. An affable vacuum. He spends a lot of his time playing straight man to Amy Morton, who puts out a fine comic performance as the hair-raising Diane, and Alan Novak, whose very walk as Ted the nerd makes you want to strangle him. Tom Zanarini's Hassan is elegantly pigheaded.

And then, of course, there's Rigdon's wall, the most expressive wall since the one that divided Pyramus and Thisbe. Larry Sloan's direction makes exquisite use of it, playing it now like a backdrop in a commercial, now like the impassive witness to a crime. Both of which it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.

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