Let’s start with definitions. “Whistleblower” refers to someone who, at some personal risk, informs on institutional wrongdoing in order to spare the public from harm. This in no way describes Eli, the obnoxious protagonist of Itamar Moses’ backstage quasi-comedy, which is enjoying its Chicago premiere at Theater Wit under the direction of Jeremy Wechsler, the company’s artistic director. “The Insufferable Busybody” or perhaps “The Self-appointed Savior” would be closer to the work’s spirit of sanctimonious self-involvement masquerading as courageous truth-telling. At some point, while suffering through this muddled play with its intensely irritating main character, it occurred to me that the best title would be the wonderful German compound word “Backpfeifengesicht,” which translates as “a face in need of a punch.”
The play begins promisingly enough, as Eli (Ben Faigus) and his agent Dan (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II) meet with Hollywood producer Richard (Michael Kostroff, resplendent in an ultra-tacky Hawaiian shirt, courtesy of costumer designer Johan Gallardo). As Richard and Dan wordlessly and humorously signal to each other their growing discomfort, Eli pitches his idea, a convoluted, navel-gazing tale about a TV writer who has become sick of writing fictional stories about fantasy heroes, and instead decides to speak only hard, personal truths designed to free himself and others from the grip of life-limiting self-deceptions. Honesty will be his superpower.
As a premise for a comedy show, it sounds about as funny as a funeral, yet the supposedly shrewd, battle-hardened producer inexplicably greenlights the concept. This is where the play starts going sideways. As soon as Eli hears the good news, he has a sudden conversion experience, announcing to his two stunned companions that he’s no longer interested in pursuing this or any other project. Instead, like the character he’s just invented, Eli decides to break up with current girlfriend Allison (Julia Alvarez), jettison his laboriously crafted career and attempt to tie up all the loose ends of his thirty-six-year-old life, as though they were the plot threads of the latest long-form Netflix offering.
We learn eventually that behind this abrupt transformation is a bad conscience, rooted in Eli’s long-ago ghosting of his girlfriend Eleanor (Rae Gray, who also plays Eli’s meth-addicted sister Rebecca and Dan’s overworked assistant, Sophie). There’s something at least potentially touching about Eli’s attempt to redeem himself and others by confronting the errors and falsehoods of the past. But due to his own self-absorption and lack of empathy, his truthfulness invariably comes off as aggression, as he analyzes friends and family from above, with a cool logic untempered by compassion. Encased in a self-righteous bubble, Eli can’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between helping others and haranguing and shaming them. It’s not clear whether the playwright—who pushes us to sympathize with Eli as he deals with the flawed, defensive and sometimes just plain nutty people around him—is aware of the cruelty embedded in Eli’s good intentions.
Mixing heavy, mostly unfunny comedy with not-quite-serious drama, the ninety-five-minute play fails to find its footing in terms of rhythm and tone. Similarly, the acting styles never mesh. Faigus’ Eli has a breathy, overly earnest monotone delivery that clashes with the Method realism of Gray’s Eleanor, as well as the broad comic approach in Alvarez’ cartoon-like depiction of Allison, Kostroff’s Richard and Andrew Jessop’s Max, Eli’s childhood friend who has turned into a paranoid, art-hating, independently wealthy, gun-toting hippie. (You know, one of those.) There’s some skillful doubling and even tripling of parts, as the hardworking cast of seven takes on twelve separate roles across a variety of California locations, which are suggested rather than pictured in Brian Redfern’s spare, open set. But not all of the doubling actors succeed in maintaining their character distinctions, and RjW Mays fails to inject a convincing Jewish mother vibe into her portrayal of Eli’s hovering, all-too-helpful parent.
So is Eli—with his impulsiveness, mood swings, isolation, black-and-white thinking and advanced messiah complex—literally mad? Maybe, maybe not; the play is noncommittal on this important question. What lingers is the suggestion that he’s no crazier than the showbiz culture he’s part of, with its easy self-commodification and emphasis on style over substance. There’s a depressing inescapability woven into “The Whistleblower,” a tale written by a playwright-screenwriter about a TV screenwriter who pitches a story about a screenwriter who seeks to turn his actual life into a morally heroic screenplay. One exits the theater desperate to find solid ground and re-enter real life. To its credit, this play leaves us wondering what that even means in a world shaped by manufactured images and narratives.
“The Whistleblower” at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150, theaterwit.org, $18-$55. Through June 17.