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Innocent Thoughts

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Innocent Thoughts, Side Project. William Missouri Downs's 1995 two-man play about race relations makes Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter look like a Junior League cotillion. As directed by Adam Webster in the tiny Side Studio space (possibly the smallest venue in the city), the play seethes from the start with resentments and misunderstandings.

Ira Aldridge (Arch Harmon) is a black Chicago attorney defending a white cop charged with killing his wife's black lover 20 years earlier and burying the body in his basement. Aldridge's expert witness, an anthropologist hired to testify about the identity of the recently discovered bones, has dropped out, leaving the lawyer an hour to prep his replacement: nebbishy Jewish doctoral candidate Arlen Weinberg (Patrick Mousel). Weinberg is a kid from Aldridge's old neighborhood, North Lawndale--his father was Aldridge's landlord (or slumlord, as Aldridge repeatedly maintains). And according to Weinberg, Aldridge used to beat the shit out of him on a regular basis.

All these complications add up to a show with too much dramatic freight for its own good--credulity is strained as often as the actors' vocal chords as each declaims his victimization. But Harmon and Mousel deliver nuanced performances despite the heavy-handedness of Downs's script, Webster has designed the playing area so that the audience is a de facto jury, and there are some genuinely thought-provoking moments amid the histrionics.

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