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All the Rage

Goodman Theatre

By Adam Langer

Maybe it's me, but it seems that lately whenever I leave a theater, get in my car, and flip on the radio, the world outside bears no relationship to the world I've just seen onstage. A hermetically sealed fantasyland populated by solid but pointless revivals of old chestnuts and irrelevant comedies, the theater more and more seems to avoid today's realities, refusing to challenge the status quo or to address contemporary issues in any but the most facile way.

Of late, the Goodman Theatre has been as much a culprit as any local company. Blessed with grand budgets and saddled with limited ambitions, the Goodman over the past year or two has delivered exquisitely designed, ultrasafe productions that are cute but immaterial (Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky), beautiful but simplistic (Mary Zimmerman's Mirror of the Invisible World), or just plain doggedly commercial (Randy Newman's Faust). And forthcoming productions of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, As You Like It, Noel Coward's Design for Living, and a new Eric Bogosian work don't offer much hope of more risks.

But in its wonderfully over-the-top premiere of Keith Reddin's stunningly ambitious, somewhat scattershot All the Rage, Goodman has made a great leap forward into the realm of daring theater, reminding the audience of the visceral and intellectual intensity that once existed on Chicago's theater scene. Like a deliciously refreshing breath of foul air, Reddin's uncompromisingly dark play smokes and churns, whipping itself into an apocalyptic frenzy, bringing with it portents of doom as we approach the 21st century.

Say what you will about Reddin's lack of subtlety, his brutal cynicism, and his chillingly macabre sense of humor, this play represents an all-too-rare singularity of vision as immediate as next year's headlines. Reddin's amoral world is swirling with neuroses, paranoia, and threats of violence. His eccentric gun-toting characters teeter precariously on the border between sanity and madness, sin and salvation, honor and brutal criminality. A grim undercurrent flows through even the most lighthearted portions of the play, establishing a nightmarish American landscape that hits a lot closer to home than Moss Hart or Noel Coward.

At once exhilaratingly chaotic and stringently structured, All the Rage is set at "the end of this century" in an unnamed American city where people have become increasingly divided by class, profession, and sexual orientation. Paranoia has become so rampant that trying to cross these borders and subvert the isolation invariably results in ruin. All the people in Reddin's world seem to fear each other--and with good reason. Guns are everywhere. Sex is purely instrumental, and romance has all but vanished. Violence is so commonplace and loneliness so prevalent that lovers are more likely to kill each other than be forced to deal with rejection. Much of the play seems designed to prove the thesis of one of Reddin's least articulate characters, who asserts that the world is "a cesspool of insanity populated by sick fucks."

A dizzying eddy of plots and subplots, the play opens unpromisingly in the home of Warren (Steve Pickering) and Helen (Leslie Lyles), where Warren has mistaken a coworker for an intruder and shot him to death. A stiff, hackneyed sequence in which Warren gets more pissed off about the blood on his bathrobe than the dead man on his floor portends an altogether dreary, laughless sitcom evening. But as Reddin's story grows more intricate and unpredictable and the initial shooting triggers variations on the theme of absurd violence, the exaggerated quality of the dialogue becomes less of a liability. Deftly interweaving scenes, Reddin layers complication upon complication, introducing the viewer to the wildest assemblage of dysfunctional characters this side of an R. Crumb cartoon.

Warren's criminality forces him to enter a cold, cynical realm of philandering lawyers and indifferent policemen, while Helen escapes her husband by disguising herself as a man and entering the employment of an eccentric, godlike Orson Welles-ian millionaire, Norton (Del Close), who's long since shut himself off from the deafening noise of contemporary society. A moonstruck video-store owner, Tennel (Andrew White), who used to work for Norton, falls madly in love with a money-hungry teenager named Annabel (Lara Phillips); she has a violent ex-con brother and a bisexual lover, who jilts his gun-carrying, Prozac-popping movie-buff boyfriend for her. Though at times the play seems to be hurtling off in a thousand directions at once, Reddin is able to bring all its elements under control in an almost algebraic arrangement of plot permutations to create a coherent, disturbing horror show. Goodman's press materials cite parallels between Reddin, Quentin Tarantino, and Jacobean dramatists like Thomas Middleton, and though there may be echoes of 17th-century splatter drama and poker-faced 90s violence in All the Rage, these comparisons are tenuous at best and fail to give full credit to Reddin's originality.

Bold, startling, consistently inventive, and alive with gritty brutality and impassioned poetry, All the Rage is nevertheless hardly flawless. A couple of soliloquies by bisexual lawyer Tim (Tim Edward Rhoze) seem superfluous. Some of the violence feels contrived, a way for Reddin to hammer home his grim worldview. His treatment of female characters, particularly the slutty and vindictive Annabel, is hardly satisfactory. And one of the final plot twists is so predictable that people behind me were guessing it aloud a long time before it came about. Still, this is a vital piece of theater presented forcefully, with honesty, clarity, and conviction.

Like Reddin's Black Snow and Life During Wartime, this play is done an incredible service by the razor-sharp vision of Michael Maggio, who, if not the best director in town, is damn close. Taking full advantage of Goodman's coffers and Linda Buchanan's stunning sets, which effortlessly shift the scene from one location to another, Maggio delivers a brilliant, breathtaking production backed by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn's propulsive score. And the ensemble Maggio has assembled is startlingly strong even by Goodman standards. Lyles as Helen radiates intelligence and charisma, and Phillips as Annabel brings to mind the delightfully hedonistic, cynical Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby. White is exceedingly witty as the straitlaced video-store owner, and though it seems redundant to hail praise upon an actor who's already revered as a guru, Close's grandiloquent performance as Norton is masterful.

All the vitality and immediacy of this flawed but inspiring work might have signaled a bold new step for the Goodman and Chicago theater were it not for the lineup announced for next season. Pity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Liz Lauren.

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