Never let it be said that Failure: A Love Story isn't charming. The dialogue certainly is. So are the cornball jokes, musical interludes, odd character traits, and bouts of dark wit. The performances in Victory Gardens Theater's world-premiere staging of it are often wildly charming. And the melancholy moral? Full of a tender, elegiac charm. The Grand Canyon is deep and wide and Philip Dawkins's play is charming, and that's all there is to it.
Which is precisely the problem: that's all there is to it.
Set in Chicago during the first quarter of the 20th century, Failure presents a fable in the form of a family saga. Henry and Marietta Fail arrive from the old country and open a clock repair shop along the Chicago River, at the intersection of Lumber and Love. (There's still a Lumber Street that runs parallel to the south branch from Roosevelt to around Cermak, but if there was ever a Love—and it seems impossible that there wasn't—it no longer exists.)
They soon have three easy-to-differentiate daughters: earnest Gert, athletic Jenny June, and jazz-kitten Nelly. A fourth child's stillbirth sends Marietta into a deep depression, from which she doesn't recover until the family adopts John N, whom they find floating down the river in a basket, like Moses, but with a snake for company. Shy and sensitive, John N makes a pet of the snake, talks to it, and gets answers in clear (if heavily sibilant) English.
We're warned at the start that Gert, Jenny June, and Nelly will all die in 1928—information that's no doubt intended to impart a sense of urgency to the proceedings at the clock shop, but that comes across instead as an arbitrary—well—deadline, since there's no particular significance to the date. In any case, the sisters are preceded into the void by their parents, who die cute in a car accident related to the 1915 Eastland disaster. I've got to admit it gave me a jolt to see an event that drowned over 800 people used as the setup for a comic bucket-kicking. I suppose, though, that it's a calculated affront—Dawkins's way of signaling us that we're in a universe where even fairly large-scale extinctions are just part of the flow. I can't wait to see his comedy about the Holocaust.
Into this soup of mortality wades a handsome young fellow named Mortimer Mortimer—known to the Fail sisters, significantly, as Mort Mort. It's 1928 by now. Mort Mort falls for each girl in turn only to see her expire almost as soon as she starts to fall for him.
Dawkins and director Seth Bockley lay all this out with the ironic lack of irony that's become a trope of hipsterish theater since the early days of Sarah Ruhl. I'd say the prime local practitioners of the style are Emily Schwartz and Strange Tree Group, and Failure can easily be mistaken for one of their shows in its resort to simpler times, its use of a fairy-tale tone, its childlike simplifications and enthusiasms, its handicraft aesthetic. All the signifiers are here. A characterization begs to be flattened. An eccentricity demands to be amplified. A song almost automatically calls for a kazoo and an ukulele. A premium is set on clever coups de theatre, carried out with simple materials—a rope and a chair, for instance, to help approximate swimming. We're all kids again, playing the way kids do.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that. As I say, Failure can be crazy charming. But Bockley's production paints the faux innocence on so thickly, with such determined whimsy, that it becomes exhausting after a while—and more, begins to look like an evasion, since we never get the answers to some essential questions. Like, who is Mort Mort? Is he really death itself? If so, why does he seem to live on congenial, unthreatening terms with John N? And if he's not death, but just an incredibly unlucky lover, why does he appear to accept his lot with equanimity, never broaching the issue of guilt? Never even getting angry?
Then there's the business of Jenny June's death. Unlike her sisters, who die in ways over which they have no control, she disappears during her swim across Lake Michigan, in a split second, when she's near her goal. Are we to take that as a voluntary surrender, if not outright suicide? (Which would make it utterly uncharacteristic of her.) Or should we chalk it up to sloppy metaphor-building on Dawkins's part?
I don't know. What I do know is that Dawkins and Bockley couldn't have asked for a better bunch of actors to carry out their flawed, if not quite failed, conception. Guy Massey plays various roles with a journeyman's grace, but utterly endears himself as a talking dog. Emjoy Gavino radiates spunk as Jenny June, and Baize Buzan sheer delight as Nelly. Often cast as regular guys, Michael Salinas aces the idiosyncrasy of John N. Similarly, Janet Ulrich Brooks goes brilliantly wild in her collection of roles—but nowhere more so than as John N's snake. Charming.