American Theater Company (ATC)
American Theater Company by Dan Zeff
Chicago—No theater deliberately stages a bad play, but occasionally it happens. It certainly happened Thursday night at the American Theater Company with the world premiere of “T.”, a 95-minte one-acter that is as pointless as its minimalist title.
“T.” purports to deal with one of the most sensational scandals in American sports history. Tonya Harding was in competition with fellow American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan for a place on the American Olympic team that would compete in the 1994 winter games. On Jan. 6, 1994, Kerrigan was attacked after a practice session in Detroit. Harding’s ex husband, along with her bodyguard, hired a man to break Kerrigan’s leg to keep her off the ice.
Kerrigan received a leg bruise instead of the intended broken leg but she still had to withdraw from the national championship competition that preceded the Olympics. Harding won that event and qualified for the Olympics along with Kerrigan. Harding ultimately finished eighth and Kerrigan finished second in the games.
The uproar over the attack escalated into an international media frenzy. Eventually four men served prison sentences for their roles in the Kerrigan attack. Later in 1994, Harding was banned for life from the United States Figure Skating Association after she pleaded guilty to obstructing the prosecution following the Kerrigan assault.
Harding tried to skate professionally but her reputation was so toxic that few skaters and promoters wanted anything to do with her. She even tried a boxing career from 2002 to 2008, winning 4 fights and losing 3 and mostly was royally booed by the attendees.
Audience members with a basic knowledge of the Harding-Kerrigan scandal may have a fighting chance at understanding what’s happening on the ATC stage. Others will be baffled, struggling to follow the first two-thirds of the drama in which the five characters in various combinations argue and complain and conspire and fuss without the audience having any idea what they are talking about, or in some cases who they are in relation to each other. The theater offers a broadsheet in place of a playbill, which provides no information about the play beyond performer credits. It’s as though the playwright finished the script and in effect tells potential viewers, “Your on your own. You figure it out.”
When the attack on Kerrigan finally takes place off stage, the audience hears about it only in an audio sequence of radio headlines that compete with the characters talking on stage. The whole play should be a buildup to the actual Kerrigan violence but “T.” virtually slips it in while the audience’s attention is elsewhere.
The character of Tonya is frequently on stage, temperamental and argumentative but mostly an ill-defined figure. She apparently had no direct hand in the Kerrigan attack but knew what went on after the fact. Her husband is a sleaze ball who is the heart of the conspiracy to injure Kerrigan.
Tonya’s coach seems the only levelheaded figure in the narrative. A character named Shawn hangs around Tonya and her husband, but if his position in the narrative was ever clearly stated I missed it. And finally there is Tonya’s father, a middle aged man who appears in a few scenes to no purpose. I did notice in my attempt to get a fix on this character that the actor bore a striking facial resemblance to former Chicago Cubs player and broadcaster Ron Santo.
Not knowing what the playwright wanted to say in “T.”, we are forced to fall back upon conjecture. The press release, which is not available to members of the audience, states that the play “explores the psychology of underdogs, desperate to rise above their class.” But Harding was already a star skater who won or finished high in numerous national and international competitions. She wasn’t a nobody scratching for recognition in the hotbed of political intrigue that was major league figure skating.. Her workouts attracted thousands of spectators and dozens of reporters and film crews. She was brought down by a plot that was ill conceived to the point of idiocy. That may provide a valid basis for an interesting play, but “T.” is not that play.
“T.” was doomed from the start by the script, and the American Blues Theater production does nothing to redeem the work. The cast gets through the evening adequately but neither the performers nor the director are able to salvage a play that was stillborn upon delivery. It’s no disgrace for a world premiere to require additional work shopping or tweaking to enhance its artistic and commercial chances. But “T.” needs a complete rethink, and even then, I don’t think so.
“T.” runs through June 25 at the American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron Street. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $38. For reservations, call (773) 409 4125 or visit email@example.com.