Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Illegal Use of Hands/American Blues Theater

Recommended Shows, World Premiere Add comments

Howie Johnson, Dennis Zacek and Steve Key/Photo: Johnny Knight

Has-been football players Roy (Howie Johnson) and Cody (Steve Key) find themselves outside Wallace’s (Dennis Zacek) house when Roy’s POS Chevy breaks down. Roy is convinced Wallace is the referee responsible for the game-losing call that spoiled their championship season and ruined their lives.

Playwright James Still’s implausible narrative plants seeds for conflict but doesn’t deliver. Story threads are introduced (Cody meets an old flame; Cody, who is gay, has a crush on a classmate) and never fleshed out. Instead, Still layers on the hopelessness, the standard characterization of the working class these days.

Johnson makes a fine teabagger dolt, steeped up to his ears in nostalgia. Zacek deftly handles Still’s awkward efforts at the abstract, while Key does what he can with a character who doesn’t know what he wants, where he’s going or why. The script’s bleakness is its most disappointing feature. The grunts are tougher than that. (Lisa Buscani)

American Blues Theater at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000. Through September 30. (Half-Priced Tickets)

One Response to “Review: Illegal Use of Hands/American Blues Theater”

  1. brianhey Says:

    Though I was not writing the review, I did attend the press opening and liked the play very much. I went with my father, who, though not a professional critic, tends to judge more harshly than I do; he liked it even more than me. I was surprised at the critical response to the show, and thought I would weigh in, not so much in rebuttal to Lisa’s critique, but as a counterpoint to the body of reviews so far published. What my father and I have in common, and perhaps in uncommon with the reviewers, was a background in football. We both played the sport in high school (I continued in college), and it’s been a shared interest of ours my entire life. The play succeeds quite well in capturing that sense of nostalgia and loss that former team sports players have—we lived, laughed and suffered with a group of men for weeks, for years, in pursuit of a common goal. The bonds we built were strong. We raise the stakes as players, or even as fans, far beyond their rightful place, perhaps, but for most of us, we’ll never achieve such clarity of purpose or such camaraderie of spirit again. And that’s those of us who have meaningful lives in other arenas. But we all know Roys, men who, though they never imagined it at the time, peaked in high school and never moved on. The blustery, politically incorrect but lovable buffoon that we’d make fun of, but who’d always be around. Like John Belushi’s Bluto, Howie Johnson’s Roy full embodies that character. High school sports are an apt stand-in for the American Dream, but for most, that dream is far more elusive when the cleats are hung up.

    James Still seems to really get that connection in this play. I’m less a fan of the bits of mystery that pepper the script; the mysterious phone calls, the references to letting evil in. The scent of violence in the air, the impending tragedy, is not undue, however, whether or not it “resolves.” I liked the mystique surrounding the onetime star quarterback, Cody, including his prison stint. Not every person you encounter opens like a book. Still’s certainly familiar with Chekhov’s rule about the gun, and is purposefully playing with it, leaving certain issues unexplained, certain “explosions” undetonated. Life’s more like that, right? Thankfully, most guns do not go off. And endings are rarely tidy.

    When dad and I were talking after the show in the car ride home, we did agree that the play was really a show for men. The characters, and their concerns were uniquely male concerns, at least at this point in time. I pondered this later, as i thought about the critical response that greeted the show. Beyond that, I thought about the personal history that most writers I know have in common. High school for most was not a time of gridiron glory, of homecoming and revelry, but of solitude, loneliness and discomfort. Writers tend to have miserable high school experiences. Jocks were the enemy, not sources of heartbreak and compassion. Maybe this is not the show for them?

    For me, “Illegal Use of Hands” was a thought-provoking night of theater exploring characters and specific concerns that resonated with me personally in a way that few other shows do, performed by an outstanding cast in a show tightly constructed and designed. A winner, in other words.

    —Brian Hieggelke, Newcity

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