HARD SCRAMBLED, Empire Theatre Company and Terrapin Theatre, at the Factory Theater Company. Nothing remotely profound happens in this Mamet spin-off about male "bonding," stolen money, and betrayal--but the energy and sincerity of both production and play push Hard Scrambled to an impressive limit. Directed by Robbie Hayes with visceral gusto, this Chicago premiere of a work by Empire cofounder David Scott Hay delivers a series of dramatic jolts in sudden plot turns that are catnip to actors. A hit in San Antonio (Empire's original home), it's lost nothing in its trek to the midwest.
Three men struggle over control of a diner whose owner was hospitalized after a suspicious accident in the kitchen. Benno is an ex-con who believes in second chances and old-fashioned loyalty; he slings hash and hopes to finally own something. Joe, the deliveryman, has equally fervent plans: he'd like to make this greasy spoon trendy and patch up his marriage. Meanwhile Scotty is an opportunistic slacker with no sympathy for Benno's creed of solidarity.
Subtleties, in writing or acting, would be wasted on the characters' up-front conflicts: this trio simply rub one another raw until the friction starts a fire. Al Gallegos is especially intriguing as the hard-luck survivor trying to dream for real; Brian Alan Hill's sinister smoothness as Scotty and Gerrit O'Neill's quirky desperation as Joe offer cunning contrasts. (Caution: the Factory theater/sauna is not air-conditioned. The Empire folks promise the addition of two "swamp coolers," but they're unlikely to beat this heat.)