The Return of the Hip Messiah | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Return of the Hip Messiah

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The Return of the Hip Messiah, Prop Theatre, at Second City, Donny's Skybox Studio. Charles Pike's cabaret-theater piece, directed by Aaron Freeman, chronicles the last months of hipster comic Lord Buckley: his 1960 sojourn in Chicago, where he joined Second City members Severn Darden and Del Close in a stand-up act at the Gate of Horn nightclub, and his subsequent move to New York, where the 54-year-old Buckley died under mysterious circumstances--Pike's play suggests that police brutality was involved.

The main draw of this spotty but engaging show is actor Richard Henzel's brilliant re-creation of Buckley's manic free-associative routines, many of which used Amos 'n' Andy-style humor to simultaneously satirize and exploit racial stereotypes. Henzel's Buckley comes off as a sort of cross between minstrel-show clown, jazz poet, and Frank Morgan's Wizard of Oz--an enigmatic eccentric whose grandiose airs mix put-on with self-delusion. The supporting cast includes graceful Eli Goodman as Buckley's mostly mute sidekick Prince Louis, Tania Richard as Buckley's exotic-dancer companion, Jonathan Lavan as Darden, and Peter DeFaria as Close--who was originally slated to direct this play until mortal illness intervened. Susan Kaip's set evokes the cultural and political background with images of Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King Jr., and a billboard advertising "Sputnikburgers." The result is quirky entertainment--but Pike's peek into Buckley's private life needs much more development to make this portrait of a cult figure as compelling as it has the potential to be.

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