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‘Illegal Use of Hands’ just too blue to be true

Howie Johns(from left) Dennis Zacek Steve Key star American Blues Theatre’s “Illegal Use Hands.” | PHOTO BY JOHNNY KNIGHT

Howie Johnson (from left), Dennis Zacek and Steve Key star in American Blues Theatre’s “Illegal Use of Hands.” | PHOTO BY JOHNNY KNIGHT

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When: Through Sept. 30

Where: American Blues Theatre at Victory Gardens Biograph Studio Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $29-$39

Info: (773) 871-3000;

Updated: October 9, 2012 2:08PM

‘Bad things WILL happen,” says Wallace, the grizzly-bearded, Vietnam veteran whose beloved wife died two years earlier, and whose old house, somewhere in rural America, has just been casually invaded by two guys a generation younger than he is, and a whole lot less resigned to things.

The time is now in James Still’s 85-minute play, “Illegal Use of Hands,” receiving its world premiere by American Blues Theater. And each of Still’s three characters are, quite literally, suffering from the blues. In addition to Wallace there is Roy (Howie Johnson) — the tubby, divorced, violence-prone, unemployed, divorced father of three boys about whom he has little good to say — and Cody (Steve Key), the still good-looking former star athlete who is gay, and who has returned to town after an absence of many years.

Each man drinks from his own particular well of sadness, loss, disappointment and the general unfairness of life. Some of their pain is deeply rooted in the past, or their own natures. But much of it also seems emblematic of a general fraying of the American dream. It would seem that the two younger, nearly forty-year-old guys have charged into Wallace’s house to settle some sort of score. But Wallace hardly reacts to their invasion, while Roy more or less detonates on his own and Cody tries to calm him down.

Still has something to say here, but I can’t help wishing he’d written a better play — less manufactured-feeling, less cheaply menacing, less murky in the way it tries to draw the men’s fates together by means of some long-ago failure to win a football homecoming game. (That game, and the change of the team’s name from the Indians to the Falcons, is cited as the beginning of a general collapse.)

The play has some funny moments (particularly a riff on the downfall of the Chevy, delivered by a superbly droll Zacek), and some nice bits of business (notably Zacek’s rendering of a tutorial on the drinking of Scotch). And Still gives us some telling observations about the state of the job market these days, with Johnson capturing Roy’s bitterness at losing out to a college grad for a greeter’s job atWalmart.

Under Sandy Shinner’s muscular direction (on set designer Grant Sabin’s ideally lived-in interior), Johnson spews plenty of testosterone-fueled pain and rage, Key is the quietly broken-hearted mediating force who tends to head for the exit, and Zacek is perfectly wizened, as well as wise. Problem is, I just didn’t really buy any of it.

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