They take you, quite literally, for a ride. Michael Fosberg drives up to the Mercury Theater in a gray 1985 Delta 88 with a landau roof, plush burgundy seats, and an air freshener in the shape of a burning eight ball. There are three of us at the curb. He steps out and explains the rules: we can operate our windows if we want, but we're not to talk unnecessarily, leave the car without permission, or break the fourth wall that in this case divides the front and back seats. Once we're on the road, we're invisible.
And once we're on the road, he's Teddy--a character in Ralph Concepcion's play, Job Opportunity, and a sort of burning eight ball in his own right. Giving new meaning to the phrase "road show," Job Opportunity has us tag along with Teddy as he chases a deal through the Chicago night. At times that chase can be less than compelling, but the night itself is full of unexpected marvels.
A south-side prole with a heavy Bridgeport twang, Teddy's got WLUP on the box and a cell phone at his ear as he wheels us toward a spot in Uptown to pick up his penniless young pal Carl. A mysterious acquaintance of Teddy's has offered them the chance to split $500 for a single night's effort. Carl's brought his work gloves, but the job turns out to be a good deal less demanding than he was led to believe. All they've got to do is deliver a little black nylon athletic bag to a guy named Duke.
Teddy and Carl head for a Just Tires on Broadway near Lawrence, where the mysterious acquaintance--a bearded pudge named Kendricks--hands them the zipped-closed bag. Carl's worried. Very worried. Ethically scrupulous despite his urgent need for cash, he hasn't intentionally broken the law since shoplifting from Zayre as a kid and has no desire to turn outlaw now. His uneasiness edges over into outright panic when Teddy drops off the bag and returns to the car with an envelope containing not $500 but $5,000 in hundred-dollar bills. The play becomes American Buffalo on wheels as Concepcion's philosophical lowlifes pull into a lot under the el and debate the ramifications of accepting the dough.
Job Opportunity has a surprise ending--or, more accurately, a surprise that comes at the end. But it can't match the unscripted surprises that turn up in the course of tooling around Uptown, Andersonville, and Lakeview on a weekend evening. At one point we watched, stuck in traffic, as darkly opulent Marilyn Manson fans converged on the Aragon for a concert. At another, we found ourselves in a convergence of Chicago cops bearing flashlights and wanting to know whether we'd heard shots. Even minor occurrences--a panhandler approaching Kendricks, people emerging from a parked car as Carl and Teddy argued, a tight squeeze down a side street--became vivid elements of a completely unfiltered mise-en-scene. I felt both extraordinarily vulnerable and extraordinarily attuned to surroundings I was helpless to control. Now I maintain an alarmed focus as the actors have it out in an alley (calling attention to themselves, by the way, as no practiced urbanite would). Now I have to suppress an urge to join their conversation. Now their crisis becomes so much background chatter as I stare out the window at whatever's unfolding on the street. The play's absolutely essential to the experience, and yet in certain ways the least important part of it.
Fosberg and Scott Hamilton Westerman are resourceful improvisers as Teddy and Carl--fun to listen to as they riff, for instance, on Marilyn Manson's alleged talent for autofellatio. Fosberg's got the failed hustler in Teddy down cold; Westerman, however, never projects the self-righteousness needed for Carl's extreme stances to make sense. Patrick Zielinski stays so resolutely in character as the brusque, beat, vaguely threatening Kendricks that his interactions with outsiders become a play in themselves: frightening when he's talking down to a cop, silly when he's using his gang patois on a couple of wholesome-looking teenagers who happen to ask him a question. The Delta 88 is cool. Chicago's stunning.
Somebody asked me how the folks behind Job Opportunity can possibly make money with a maximum audience of four at each performance. Well, look at it this way: they charge by the carload ($125), do 12 shows a weekend, and get maybe 15 mpg on their theater. With no technicians, designers, physical box office, lighting instruments, costumes, or rent, I'd say they're actually more cost-efficient than most.
This is theater for the Bush economy.
Or, one theater for the Bush economy. Jim Dennen offered another model on a recent Saturday evening. The former director of Ed, one of Chicago's great lost improv companies, Dennen wanted to "engage in a process," as he put it, with actors David Gray and Ben Viccellio: to collaborate artistically despite a lack of time, space, money, and ready-made audiences. Not to mention grants. Their solution was to mount a one-night-only production of Stephen Belber's Tape, which is set in a motel room--and to perform it in a motel room.
Tape is a negligible short play (made into a movie in 2001 by Richard Linklater) about three sometime friends who do a lot of infantile wrangling over events that took place ten years earlier, when they were all in their senior year of high school. I can sort of see what Belber had in mind, but I don't know why he thought it was interesting, and Dennen's production didn't really tell me. Tape wasn't a very good show.
And yet, in some important respects, it was great theater. Tape's significance, like Job Opportunity's, is all a matter of context. By confining his run to a single night in a room that would accommodate only 18 audience members, Dennen didn't just limit his costs, he also created a self-selecting community: a small group of people who wanted to be there and felt the privilege of having gotten a seat. It wasn't casual, and it was far from a mass entertainment. It was an event designed specifically for human dimensions. And, again like Job Opportunity, it suggested that the power of theater, not only in our economy but in our culture, is its ability to compete by refusing to compete. By growing small.