Chicago Theatre Review
Tying One on Before Tying the Knot
New Country – Fair Trade Productions
A homecoming is being celebrated in Fair Trade Productions’ Chicago debut. Mark Roberts returns to his native Illinois. He’s become as a successful standup comedian, a film actor (“Next of Kin,” “Meet the Applegates”), a television actor (“Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “The Practice”) and a writer (“Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mike and Molly”), as well as a respected playwright (“Enter at Forrest Lawn,” “Rantoul and Die,” “Parasite Drag”) and theatrical actor. In this 90-minute premiere, which originated with much acclaim at the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater, we get a Roberts repeat. Mr. Roberts not only wrote this dark, hilarious play but he stars in it, as well.
This adult comedy is set in a fancy hotel suite in Nashville. It’s the night before the wedding of country/western superstar, Justin Spears. This young man is an engaging, talented performer, but offstage he’s turned into a spoiled, egomaniacal bully. He treats Paul (solidly played by Jeff-nominated actor, Frank Nall), the charismatic man who discovered him, and his other longtime manager, Chuck (created by the wickedly wily character actor, Will Clinger), with childish contempt. Granted, these two good ole boys don’t appear to be shining models of leadership, but then they don’t deserve to be treated like dirt, either. Justin isn’t much kinder to his hillbilly hog farmer Uncle Jim, who shows up at the hotel for the bachelor party with a blowup sex doll and a suitcase filled with intoxicating substances. Despite being generations apart, the two seem to have a great deal in common, connected by their love of drink.
Uncle Jim’s the real star of this production, especially as portrayed by the talented playwright himself. Mark Roberts creates a feisty, yet likable addled old man who exudes the look and thought-provoking philosophy of an aged hippy, while still sporting a smart-ass teenager’s crude sense of humor. Grizzled and full-bearded, Mr. Roberts transforms into a complicated old-timer who speaks in a gruff, gravely staccato. Jim is the one character loved by everyone else in this play, especially by Justin’s former girlfriend, Sharon.
As played by New York actress Sarah Lemp, Sharon is a tough cookie, a no-nonsense woman who Justin abandoned years ago when fame became his new lover. She’s a survivor of everything that life has thrown at her. Sharon’s a tigress, a fighter who refuses to ever give up. This can be seen in her relationship with Justin. However, despite a ferocious, hard-boiled persona, Sharon also holds a soft spot for Uncle Jim.
Justin, as played by “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Ring of Fire” actor/singer Michael Monroe Goodman has this role down pat. He’s a bossy, braying boy diva who’s used to having his own way in everything. Justin is the character around which the rest of the play and all its characters revolve, and Mr. Goodman understands this powerful position. Yet beneath all the bravado there lives in his Justin a tortured young man who’s less secure than his actions imply. Colter O’Ryan Smith plays Ollie, the boyish hotel bellhop with his own agenda and aspirations. Employing a smooth, southern charm, an open sexuality and a foxy way of manipulating Justin, Mr. O’Ryan demonstrates he knows his way around this territory.
Ian Streicher has directed this well-cast ensemble in a fast-paced, highly energetic production that enhances this script and raises the dramatic and comic possibilities. Kevin Hagan’s detailed scenic design seats the audience on both sides of the set. He’s created a garishly-carpeted sunken living room for the suite, with a bar and doors to the bedrooms and the rest of the hotel on the upper level. Rachel Lambert has appropriately costumed part of her cast in faded jeans, leather jackets and camouflage, while the two managers are nicely decked out in Southern chic, with flashy sport coats and cowboy boots.
This highly entertaining play by Mark Roberts is an auspicious debut, both for Fair Trade Productions and for this playwright,(at least one other of his plays is scheduled for a September production). Featuring a slick combination of fast-paced comedy and R-rated dialogue, mixed with interesting, larger-than-life characters and just a modicum of drama, this new play by Fair Trade Productions is an entertaining evening of adult theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 20-May 14 by Fair Trade Productions at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 800-838-3006 or by going to www.NewCountryThePlay.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com