ALARMS AND EXCURSIONS, Cobalt Ensemble Theatre, at Chicago Dramatists. Doing battle with a recalcitrant Walkman on my way to the theater may have helped put me in the proper mood for Michael Frayn's 1998 suite of short farces about gadgetry and its discontents.
These eight playlets receive a sturdy, detailed presentation under Ted Hoerl's adroit direction. There isn't a lot of insight in Frayn's script: gizmos make us crazy, relationships try our patience, and hell is other people--especially on vacation. Both acts begin with the same two couples at a dinner party gone awry thanks to an overactive smoke alarm, a capricious kitchen timer, and an "improved" wine bottle opener with a mind of its own. Among the cast of seven, all of whom play several roles, Scott Kennedy is particularly good as a motormouth Scotsman mocking the nerdy British couple in the hotel room next to his. And Jody Wilson hams it up a la Carol Burnett as an aristocratic public speaker whose TelePrompTer has been reprogrammed by a disgruntled underling.
On the whole the evening is the theatrical equivalent of a summer movie. It goes down easily and doesn't linger in the mind. But the performances are carefully detailed, Hoerl's pacing is admirable (aided by Rita Vreeland's clever, flexible set design), and Frayn's observations on the tyrannies of the information age ring true even though we've heard them before.