At the back of every mall, whether strip or otherwise, there’s a back channel, a tailgate, where workers can wander around dumpsters, hide from bosses, or just chat with colleagues and breathe in the suburban air. Since Eric Bogosian’s 1994 “SubUrbia,” set in a 7-Eleven parking lot, they have been fertile one-set venues for offbeat playwrights who specialize in the fears and longings of youth.
Brett Neveu’s quirky new comedy, “Revolution,” ironically named, takes place in just such a spot: in this case, outside the service door of the Revolution Cuts hair salon, a work apparently based on the Chicago writer’s Hair magazine. Cutter or similar. Standing on the dock are two women in their 20s, Puff (Stephanie Shum) and Jame (Taylor Blim).
Warner Bros. Puff, an avid fan of cartoons, has a birthday, but neither he nor his friend have money, and their work is so anxiety-provoking that throwing a party feels like too much. Even the bar at Rainforest Cafe on the other side of the mall is intimidating, even if you’re holding your glass in your hand. However, both young women are aware of the dangers of the life that passes before them and the importance of celebrating this moment with a “celebration”, as they say.
In many ways, that’s the central dramatic question of Neveu’s sweet, weird, funny play at this longtime Chicago theater that specializes in sweet, funny, weird plays. As events unfold, the two women don’t have to solve this existential question alone, thanks to the arrival of Georgia (Natalie West), a mall employee in her late 50s and longtime employee at the Ross Dress for Less store. That you can’t really be friends with your colleagues because none of them stick around long enough. He even has semi-fresh snacks in his car.
For most of the running time of this one-act play, you sit wondering whether Georgia is an optimistic characterization of the futures of these young women or a tragic character, and whether she is a truther or a fraud.
I won’t spoil the thought, but I will say that the show progresses quite enjoyablely; Neveu knows the architecture of uptown Midwestern culture (retail life on Elston or Touhy Streets, for example) and has long made the A Red Orchid series of plays central to the soul of Chicago theater.
When things unravel, it feels like you’ve just watched a play about anxiety and the difficulty of finding joy that’s neither dulled nor otherwise problematic, especially when the celebrations cost the celebrants so dearly.
The show is beautifully staged by all three (well-cast) women, and long-time fans of veteran actress West will have a lot of fun watching her famously present-tense acting, colored here with palpable fear.
I think Neveu has more to do in the play’s muddier last few minutes: There’s a false ending, and director Travis A. Knight’s otherwise competent production doesn’t flow with the quiet urgency of what’s gone before. Overall, Neveu needs to figure out the extent of the connection between women’s lives and the cartoons Puff loves so much, and how central its communication is to what it has to say about life here, post-pandemic and beyond.
Still, this is a rich and entertaining piece of theatre; a shot against elitism and pretentiousness, a victory for compassion and understanding.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Revolution” (3 stars)
When: Until October 29
Where: One Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Working time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$45 and by phone at 312-943-8722. aredorchidtheatre.org