You’ve got to hand it to those intrepid thespians at Theatre Above the Law. As their name suggests, they’re willing to try anything. TATL takes three gigantic chances with its latest offering: first, deciding to stage what is apparently the very first revival of the oddly neglected one-act “Adaptation” since its off-Broadway run in 1969; second, casting a (terrifically poised and talented) pre-teenager in a very grown-up role; and third, warming up the audience with a newly added (and not very funny) stand-up comedy routine.
Two out of three ain’t bad. Once you’ve gotten the taste of the misguided opening out of your mouth, the main event—comic genius Elaine May’s sardonic game-show-based examination of American life—shines all the brighter. Every fan of May and 1960s-style satire should catch this long-lost gem in its bright new setting.
Yes, the play’s references are from another era, as is the no-budget set with its crudely painted day-glo oblongs, which look like escapees from a lava lamp. But there’s nothing dated about the razor-sharp thematic points made here about cultural conformity and personal inauthenticity in a tightly managed, success-oriented society or the depiction of middle-class American life as a rat race whose ephemeral rewards are dwarfed by its spiritual and ethical costs. Every moment of “Adaptation” is humorously alive. Every joke contains a stingingly ironic insight.
Directed with wit and finesse by Tony Lawry, the play manages to encompass in its hour length the entirety of a life, from squalling birth to semi-welcomed death, played out along a rigorously sequential chain of board-game squares.
David Hartley is solid in his sad-sack portrayal of Phil, the Everyman contestant whose insistent earnestness cannot hide his emotional shallowness and opportunism as he advances into what passes for manhood. Playwright May wastes no energy trying to make us like the passive, path-of-least-resistance protagonist, but we do sympathize with his powerlessness in the face of family, school, government, media and job. These forces condition Phil with Pavlovian thoroughness, to the point where even his innermost dreams (a heated pool, “knowing a congressman”) seem bogusly generic. In the bourgeois society skewered by this play, “adaptation”—the game’s supposed goal—is by no means synonymous with growth or development. We see that Phil’s only real talent is for rationalization, as when he joins the less than liberal Kappa Kappa Kappa (i.e., KKK) fraternity in order to make useful contacts, justifying his choice on the grounds that he will change the frat house’s rancid culture “from within.”
Pushing him forward—at least chronologically—is the gameshow hostess, played by Delilah Lane, who is twelve going on thirty. It’s part of TATL’s mission to mentor future artists by including young performers in their productions, but it’s an open question as to who should be mentoring whom. Ms. Lane delivers with authority such edgy lines as, “You have learned to dissemble. Take a Maturity card and move forward two spaces.” The emcee has a secret that she keeps from the contestant and shares with the audience: the Security card Phil seeks is always within his grasp, if he could just look away from the board for a single moment. But with his circumscribed imagination, he cannot. It’s a plot point to ponder.
Phil’s well-intentioned but perpetually befuddled parents are played by Ross Compton and Julia Rowley, who—together with Travis Shanahan, who does a nifty Bernie Sanders imitation as a campus radical—also take on all the play’s other roles, from officious teacher (at a public school that’s “substandard but equal”) spouting nonsensical rules to domineering professor, spouse and employer. In dream fashion, the many characters are all different and all the same, symbolic mother and father figures baked in psychologically during childhood. The actors are quick, playful and in sync, moving effortlessly from role to role and skit to skit, creating a dramatic energy that’s less conventional play than a melding of long-form improv and vintage Jules Feiffer cartoon.
Elaine May—still working at eighty-seven—is the Great Mother Goddess of modern comedy, having lent her offbeat brilliance and peerless improvisational skills to Chicago’s pioneering Compass Players back in the 1950s. She has the gift and curse of seeing things with uncommon coolness and clarity, and she conveys her deep truths with deceptive simplicity. Her grimly cyclical view of life, in which discontent and artificial limitation are passed like a disease from generation to generation, has relevance in our own period of chronic angst and alienation. After all this time, we still have much to learn from poor Phil about how not to live. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Theatre Above the Law, 1429 West Jarvis, (773)655-7197, theatreatl.org, $22. Through March 8.