Black Comedy and Pale Pink Politics | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Black Comedy and Pale Pink Politics

Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way, a Fringe fave making its U.S. premiere, is funny but politically naive.

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Gagarin Way

A Red Orchid Theatre

Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way debuted at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and quickly spread to stages across the globe; it's now been translated into 19 languages. The title comes from an actual street in western Fife in Scotland named for the first cosmonaut in space. Soviet heroes may seem unlikely honorees in the British Isles, but the once thriving west Fife, now a post-Thatcher industrial wasteland, has traditionally been a hotbed of communism, returning communist party members to Parliament until 1951. The admitted product of a radical leftist environment, Burke claims he intended this play, his first, to be about "economics . . . the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times . . . and about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion."

Burke's quote has been reprinted ad nauseam, including in Red Orchid's program for this U.S. premiere. But the self-delusion of the play's bumbling radical wannabes is nothing compared to the blindness of critics who think Burke has anything insightful to say about globalism. The remark that should have gotten attention was one Burke made when the play was produced in Montreal in 2003, when he said he "actually set out to write a play about the absence of politics in my life."

The plot revolves around poorly paid drones in a multinational computer company who hope that murdering a highly placed executive will inaugurate worldwide labor unrest. Eddie is an overeducated nihilist, comfortable dissecting Sartre and Genet but happy only when he's being a hooligan and causing trouble. Gary is an idealistic socialist embittered by the disappearance of antimanagement collective action. When they team up to commit political murder, it's an experiment to Eddie and propaganda to Gary. The two of them lure an unsuspecting security guard, university student Tom, into their plot and kidnap middle-aged executive Frank from his hotel. Hidden in the company's storage room, all four debate the ethics and utility of "meaningful" homicide.

Burke shows a genius for the black comedy in this volatile situation, and the cast in Red Orchid's well-informed, carefully articulated production keeps the humor and the danger precisely balanced under Karen Kessler's crisp, unfussy direction. As Gary, Guy Van Swearingen is a blunt muddle of strident political theory and deluded ambition. As Eddie, the always edgy Michael Shannon is a sexy, slow-boiling menace; he's nicely balanced by Steve Schine's milquetoast Tom. And John Judd does a satisfying, nuanced job with the half-formed role of Frank, a disillusioned company man who might just welcome a bullet to the brain.

Burke is an uneven dramatist, however, failing to raise the stakes as high as they should go and often substituting conversation for dialogue that builds dramatically. More problematic is the script's naive politics. Gagarin Way suggests that in a global economy overqualified people get stuck in lousy jobs, anonymous upper-management types fire underlings irresponsibly, and companies are bought and sold willy-nilly. But in truth none of these threats springs exclusively from globalism--they're inherent in any large bureaucracy, even a Soviet workers' collective. Burke needs to focus on the specifics of a precise target, yet one with broad implications--in short, to be more savvy. When Tom, the play's clearest voice of reason, repeatedly suggests that the solution to world problems is to blend capitalism and socialism, he might as well be Rodney King asking plaintively, can't we all just get along?

When: Through 3/6: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM; also Mon 2/7, 8 PM (industry night)

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Price: $9-$20

Info: 312-943-8722

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