Below the Belt suffers from a too-vaguely-imagined dystopia | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Below the Belt suffers from a too-vaguely-imagined dystopia 

We can't worry about odd couple roommates until we know how much danger they're in.

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Below the Belt, written by Richard Dresser and presented by Hundo4u Productions at Redtwist Theatre, follows Dobbitt (John Hundrieser) and Hanrahan (Michael Lomenick), mismatched roommates who work as "checkers" at a mysterious company in a far-off time and place. Confined to a compound, they desire purpose and connection in an environment that promotes conformity and constant productivity.

At first the show relies on familiar tropes to situate the pair as enemies. Dobbitt, a newcomer to the company, is eager to find his place. His inexperience frustrates Hanrahan, a volatile workaholic. The play's first act is a series of slapstick domestic arguments, but through unexpected musings on loneliness, freedom, and the people they left behind, they realize what they might accomplish as friends.

Then there is their boss, Merkin, played by David McNulty. His desperation to earn the respect and compliance of his inferiors—a result of his own insecurities and loneliness—works against Dobbitt and Hanrahan's growing kinship. Director Jon Dambacher and his actors do a fine job exploring the depths of each character as they progress from comedic archetypes to fleshed-out humans with complex histories and emotional wounds.

But the play's conflict is primarily fueled by the conditions of the dismal dystopia in which the characters live. The show hints at the rules of this world, but offers few tangible details as to how it differs from our own. The lack of grounding makes it difficult to assess how much danger Dobbitt and Hanrahan are actually in at the compound and to what extent they are oppressed by the power structures of the company. As a result, the play lacks stakes, and the sense of purpose behind the characters' struggle for freedom feels diminished.   v

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