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The Boys in the Back Room 

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BELMONT AVENUE SOCIAL CLUB

Northlight Theatre

THE BEST LIES WE EVER TOLD

Your Imaginary Friends

at Puszh Studios

The scene is somehow familiar. Honchos and yes-men wearing cheap suits, shooting pool, and talking politics. These are the smoky back rooms you hear people talk about, the place where deals are cut and compromises are made. No women can venture behind these doors, no minorities either. This is urban politics in 1985, when men were men and voters were nervous.

Bruce Graham's Belmont Avenue Social Club takes us behind the scenes of a corrupt ward office in some American city. It could be Philadelphia or Boston, but it's probably Chicago--a world of two-martini lunches, stale cigar smoke, and ribald ethnic and sexist jokes.

But as the play opens, this world is coming to an end. Women are suing to gain entrance to this exclusive club, and black politicians are beginning to form a voting bloc that can no longer be shrugged off. The ward alderman has just died, and the bosses must find someone to replace him, someone who will shoot pool with the boys, in all the senses that phrase suggests.

Fran (Brett Hadley) is the boss of the operation, the man who will handpick the successor to the aldermanic throne. Doug (B.J. Jones) is a slick new-breed politician, college educated and fraternity bred. He's wanted this post for years and has kissed Fran's butt all along. The butt-kissing proves unsuccessful, and Fran chooses Tommy (Robert Brueler), a drunken slob with a small amount of gray matter but a huge amount of party loyalty. Into the mix throw Chickie (Guy Barile), a dim-witted, oversexed Sinatra fan who mixes drinks and fantasizes about "banging" Vanna White, and Charlie (Gary Houston), a cussing, racist ward worker whose chief concern seems to be ridding the ward of minorities.

At first the play seems like a rip-off, an outdated, cliche-ridden play about political dinosaurs. But somewhere in the middle of the first act it becomes a scathing indictment of local politics and an incisive essay on the power of loyalties. We watch young Doug become blinded with ambition and desire, which allows him to prey on the pathetic Tommy, whose major political liability seems to be his honesty.

Suspense builds as it becomes difficult to tell who will betray whom in order to hold on to the last bits of power in a city that no longer plays by the old rules. This dingy little ward office becomes a metaphor for the world of politics at large, where honesty is nothing and loyalty is everything and alliances are made only to be broken. It is a cold, vicious world, where every man will do anything possible to remain in power. In some ways this play works like a modern tragedy, a Julius Caesar or Antigone played behind the walls of city hall.

At times Belmont Avenue Social Club seems caught in a time warp, but that's precisely the point. The characters are also caught in a time warp, using a rule book that was drawn up in Tammany Hall. And anyone who has spent any time behind the doors of a ward office or talking to guys at Park District offices will recognize these characters immediately.

Bruce Graham's writing is snappy and clever, a cross between Damon Runyon and David Mamet, a Fiorello! without the songs. The show is well paced, the characters carefully drawn and believable. There's a good deal of offensive humor here and a number of unfortunate references to "fags," "niggers," and "babes" (the opening-night audience seemed to yuck it up quite a bit at the offensive humor, sympathizing perhaps a bit too much with these unappealing types). But the language is accurate and firmly rooted in character.

The production at Northlight is pretty close to flawless. Mike Nussbaum has done a great job directing this topflight group of actors. Jones's Doug is a wonderfully multilayered slime, and Brueler's Tommy is an incredibly honest and sympathetic portrayal. Apparently a Broadway production is in the works. The producers would be foolish not to transport the entire Chicago cast.

Your Imaginary Friends, a relatively new comedy troupe, has transformed the upstairs Puszh Studios into a kind of student union. When you walk into the exposed-brick space, you are greeted with a band playing covers of Clash and Vapors tunes, while a crew of well-scrubbed twenty-somethings sip wine spritzers and discuss former drama professors. The only thing missing is the make-your-own-sundae buffet.

The Best Lies We Ever Told is a dizzyingly frenetic multimedia effort: music, video, slides, and short skits held together by a loosely knit plot concerning a group of guerrilla dysfunctionals creating havoc at a group-therapy session at the Discovery Center.

Though the show is undoubtedly erratic and disjointed, the humor is wildly imaginative and the cast is so enthusiastic that one can't help but enjoy it. The Best Lies We Ever Told also uses space more creatively than any other show I've seen. Scenes take place offstage, in the audience, in different corners of the room, and even on a big-screen television. The ensemble is uniformly strong, and the show is in refreshingly good taste.

It's also a relief to see a company more concerned with using its intelligence to get laughs than with relying on cheap gags. Your Imaginary Friends seems to be onto something. If the cast doesn't bag it all to go take LSATs and GREs, this could be a company to watch.

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

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