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Pair of plays explore life’s darker side



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Updated: April 29, 2012 10:15AM

Two small-scale plays, each of which holds the mirror up to the darker sides of human nature, are now running on Chicago stages. Here is a closer look at how a pair of contemporary playwrights — Adam Bock and Neil LaBute — capture much of what is mean, menacing and painful about life, whether it plays itself out in the workplace or within the family:


The generic office that is the setting for “The Receptionist,” Adam Bock’s tricky, funny and ultimately oddly chilling 85-minute morality play — now in an airtight production for Steep Theatre directed by Joanie Schultz — could be the home of an insurance company or widget manufacturer.

At the front desk is the busybody title character, Beverly Wilkins (Cheryl Roy is comic perfection). Arriving perpetually late for work — in sensational spike heels and sexy little outfits — is Lorraine Taylor (the peerless Caroline Neff), who just can’t make things work out with men. Looming somewhere in the shadows is a bland, middle-aged executive, Edward Raymond (an expertly fraught turn by Peter Esposito), who appears to have bungled an assignment quite badly. And paying a visit from the head office is Martin Dart (Peter Moore), the dashing married man who knows just how to engage with the flirtatious Lorraine. But nothing in this office is quite what it seems to be.

Bock’s play (and I will not spoil its surprise element) is about the banality of evil and its terrible consequences, about the way we can incorporate and compartmentalize extreme cruelty into our everyday lives, and about the way both rage and loneliness can feed our ability to do this.

The performances are spot-on, as is the skillful storefront design by Stephen Harold Carmody (set) and Marianna Csaszar (costumes).


A great thunder storm crashes as the lights come up on “In a Forest, Dark and Deep,” the Neil LaBute play with a Grimm Brothers sort of title that is now receiving its Midwest premiere at Profiles Theatre. Then comes a fierce knocking at the door of the rustic cabin where Betty (Natasha Lowe), has asked her younger brother, Bobby (Darrell W. Cox), to come to help her pack and move.

Betty, we soon discover, is a college literature professor, married and a mother. Bobby is a carpenter, not always fully employed, and with a broken marriage and more behind him. There is a long history of sibling tension here, too, as well as the vague hint of incest. There also is a whole lot of lying going on. Just what is Betty doing in this cabin that she variously claims was bought as a getaway, or for rental income. And what happened to its latest occupant, a young male student working on a dissertation?

LaBute’s play is primarily about the lies people tell themselves and each other, and about the way lies can become increasingly pernicious and escalate to a point that is out of control. Even more, the play is about the not-so-quiet desperation of a woman who realizes she has lost the instant allure of her more youthful beauty and become more or less “transparent” to men. (This is the subject of the best writing in the play, and Lowe, who recently played a memorable Blanche DuBois, gives it her all.)

Suffice it to say that there is just far too much screaming, and far too much dependence on a great deal of back story in this 85-minute drama. And as hard as they try, neither Cox nor Lowe (under the direction of Joe Jahraus) can bring this contemporary gothic tale to life.

NOTE: The show is being staged in Profile’s new Main Stage space (right next door to its original storefront, which will continue to be used). And set designer Thad Hallstein shows off its possibilities with his two-story cabin interior that is hit by a powerhouse storm courtesy of Jeffrey Levin’s sound.

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