Cooking With Elvis, Sang Froid Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Lee Hall's screenplay for the 2000 sleeper hit Billy Elliot celebrated the saving graces of art, family, and community under duress, in this case the UK coal miners' strike of 1984-'85. Those expecting a similarly uplifting experience in his 1998 Cooking With Elvis may be unnerved.
Now receiving its Chicago premiere under Dale Goulding's assured direction, the play is like an episode of Absolutely Fabulous scripted by master of nihilism Edward Bond. Narrated by 14-year-old Jill, whose Elvis-impersonating father has been turned into a severely disabled "cabbage" by an auto accident, the story is rife with sex, drinking, and the wounding cruelty that grieving souls sometimes heap upon each other. Jill's mother is a bulimic schoolteacher and barfly whose latest conquest, Stuart (Sean O'Donnell in an admirable Chicago debut), becomes a luckless, clueless live-in sex toy. Thea Emily Nelson as Jill and Laura Millett as her mother tear into their roles--and each other--with gusto and disquieting vulnerability.
The show is a comedy, but the moments of almost unendurable loss are what linger. Dad (Ben Byer), attired in Cybele Moon's excellent knockoff King costumes, lip-synchs to Elvis and delivers several loopy dream soliloquies. By the end, as his pseudo-Elvis croons "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the emotionally damaged Jill, Goulding's production has found the bruised but beating heart of this grotesque yet oddly beguiling story.