Chicago Theatre Review
A Boy and His Time Machine
Brilliant Adventures – Steep Theatre
In an exciting finale to their 14th season, Steep Theatre Director Robin Witt expertly takes the controls and drives this new play by young, promising British playwright Alistair McDowell deep inside the imagination of her audience. Part black comedy, part edgy, surrealistic sci-fi fantasy, Ms. Witt’s production grabs hold of playgoers by the small hairs and never lets go until long after they’ve left the theatre.
Nineteen-year-old Luke has claimed his independence by moving into his own scuzzy, run-down apartment. It’s located in his native Middlesbrough, a city that’s been called “the worst place to live in the UK.” Located in northeast England, the city was once a leader in iron and steel manufacturing. But by the 1950’s “Boro,” as it’s nicknamed, had fallen into a deep decline, like so many other cities. Now it’s 2010 and unemployment is the norm. Most residents are hopelessly stuck in this urban cesspool, relying upon a tiny government assistance that barely allows them to survive. Abandoned houses and businesses dot the landscape, gangs run the town and drug traffic, prostitution and violence is everywhere. Within this metropolitan hell, Alistair McDowell has created a story of survival, filled with some of the most unexpected twists and surprises.
Being one of the poverty-stricken in this god-forsaken town, Luke has a few other problems. No one will hire or even associate with the boy because he’s saddled with a crippling stutter. As a result, Luke is irritable and antisocial. His only mate is naive, nerdy Greg, a kid who’ll do anything for money. Luke’s other problem is his older brother Rob. Besides his government benefits, Rob is Luke’s main financial and emotional support, but also the albatross around his neck. Rob isn’t very bright. He parades around a battered, drugged old Man on a dog leash. He’s also a drug dealer and is determined to use Luke’s apartment as his new place of business. Rob has made what he’s sure is a sound business connection with Ben, a middle-aged narcotics kingpin from London, who’s moved into the flat directly above Luke. Ben is rich, cocky and can’t be told “no.” He’s confident that, since desperate people can be cheaply bought, Boro will soon become his own personal monarchy. However, when Ben is unable to buy what he wants with money, he uses violence as his alternate currency.
Luke’s problems are many but his strengths are unique. He’s a self-taught genius, a theoretical physicist, and he’s built a time machine out of old cardboard boxes. Lying on his couch, amidst a jungle of old DVDs and mountains of books, Luke spends his time playing with his Gameboy. He’s converted his bedroom into a scientific laboratory, however he’s incapable of preparing his own meals. Although peppered with unexpected humor, the uneasy chemistry between these six characters is a powder keg just waiting to ignite. The mood in Robin Witt’s production sizzles like a frayed electrical wire. The unexpected becomes the expected and McDowell’s absurd universe eventually begins to feel logical.
Curtis Edward Jackson is brilliant as Luke, and this is entirely his story. The pain and anguish expressed through Luke’s halting, stumbling dialogue creates frustration for the audience, but also a deep empathy for the boy. Mr. Jackson’s sadly likable young man, strapped with so many challenges and difficulties to overcome, is an admirable protagonist to be pitied. With his vulnerability and understated intelligence, the audience cheers for Luke to somehow overcome these obstacles and succeed. In a curious, surreal spin, the playwright has also created another Luke from the future, who appears side-by-side with present-day Luke. As an extension of everything that is Luke 1, Luke 2, played with the same intensity and sensitivity by Ty Olwin, is every bit as likable and terrific.
As Rob, Ryan McBride is excellent in a role that could’ve become trite and predictable in lesser hands. He plays an older sibling who’s doing what he understands in order to help his brother and father survive an inescapable existence. Mr. McBride uses subtlety to play a kid who, although not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, is trying hard to be responsible and provide for his family. Peter Moore, Artistic Director of Steep Theatre, is the epitome of the cool and calculated bully as Ben. He smartly plays a thug who believes that everything and anyone can be bought, either with banknotes or brutality. Mr. Moore’s physical stature makes him a frightening, commanding figure and his controlled vocal work supports this quality. Playing Greg, Brandon Rivera is delightfully dim and dorky. He creates a character who’s desperate to leave behind the savagery and poverty that defines his life. The only salvation he sees is money and Greg will do anything for a quid. And in a bizarre turn, Will Kinnear plays the Man, a curious zombie-like character kept on a lead and tied to the windowsill. He moans, dozes off and often demonstrates a quiet urgency to protect his own. The second act is launched by a long monologue delivered by this Man during a better time in his life. Audiences may wonder about its relevance, but there’s more to his tale about a fishbowl and two broken fingers than ever expected.
Housed inside Dan Stratton’s dingy, claustrophobic apartment setting and seasoned by Thomas Dixon’s original music and detailed sound design, Robin Witt has driven this sometimes funny, often terrifying and generally mind-boggling American premier deep into the psyche of every audience member. Alistair McDowell’s hybrid of Quentin Tarantino meets H.G. Wells is presented in a staggering, stimulating and astonishing production that’s guaranteed to “stoke conversation” and haunt audiences long after the final curtain.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 9-August 15 by Steep Theatre Company, 1115 W. Berwyn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.steeptheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.