At the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—There might be an audience for “The Doppelganger” at the Steppenwolf Theatre. There were certainly people who laughed and applauded during the performance I attended. I thought the show was insupportable, so what follows might be considered a minority report.
Dramatist Matthew-Lee Erlbach subtitles “The Doppelganger” as “(an international farce),” which puts the audience on alert that the play will be a very broad comedy, as all farces are. But even forewarned, the viewer can’t be prepared for the tsunami of silliness, overacting, vulgarity, inane double entendres, and gross violence that inundate the stage for more than 2½ numbing hours.
The action takes place in a French colonial mansion in the capitol of the Central African Republic. The plot, to use a courtly synonym, centers on a group of villainous power brokers who want to seize control of some rich copper mines at the expense of the impoverished country’s native population. The nasties include an Arab sheik, an African tyrant of the Idi Amin type, an American military general, a British ambassador, and a young Chinese Silicon Valley inventor.
By way of definition, a doppelganger is the twin of another living person. They may not be related or even know of each other’s existence, but they remain identical. In this show, they are a rich British businessman named Thomas Irdley and a dorky American schoolteacher from Quincy, Illinois, named Jimmy Peterson. The other characters aren’t aware of the duplication, allowing for endless misunderstandings as first Thomas and then Jimmy take the stage to sow the misunderstandings that drive the plot on its increasingly frantic and noisy way to destruction.
Even the best farces have storylines so complicated that they defy summarizing and the plot of “The Doppelganger” is no exception. But the farce is really an intricate and sophisticated mechanism as anyone who has seen either “Charley’s Aunt” or “Noises Off” can testify. The storyline follows its own surreal logic, comic crises building on each other to a hilarious result. Except here.
“The Doppelganger” makes up in frenzy what it lacks in comic logic, and in the second act the play becomes an out of control track meet as characters race up and down stairs and through doors, signifying nothing except the stamina of the actors and the ability of the director to pile on one inane sight gag after another while at least one member of the audience was cringing in his seat, repulsed by all the pointless pandemonium.
What was really galling was the play’s attempt to make a social statement about the evils of colonialism and the immortality and greed of world leaders. The characters, however, are all cartoons not to be taken seriously for a moment so whatever criticisms the show might advance about the dangers of international corruption are beyond pretentious. And just when I thought the play had hit bottom in its manic cavorting, the action turns into an orgy of blood and mutilation like a Grand Guignol melodrama had somehow dropped into the playwright’s word processor. Unbelievable!
The 10-member cast certainly has bought into director Tina Landau’s tumultuous view of Erlbach’s script, though in truth the author forced Landau into the position with a show that does anything, absolutely anything, for a laugh. Vulgarity in common cause with bad taste percolates throughout the very long evening but the performers give it their all. Every one of them looked and sounded like they were capable of conquering much better material but their commitment to the Landau-Erlbach vision was total.
The star of the production is stage and TV star Rainn Wilson, who heroically handles the British and American accents of his dual-role. He teams up with dummies and stand-in Dan Plehal to give us a Thomas and a Jimmy almost simultaneously in full view of the audience.
Michael Accardo throws himself into the role of the venal American general with real conviction and even gets to show some fine acting chops. Celeste Cooper manages to extract some sympathy in the role of the maid who is fighting the bad guys to save her country. Andy Negraj earns props for spending much of the second act naked on stage as the sex driven sheik. The rest of the cast consists of Audrey Francis, Ora Jones, Whit K. Lee, Sandra Marquez, James Vincent Meredith, and Karen Rodriguez. Eric Slater takes over Wilson’s role for some performances.
Todd Rosenthal has designed the detailed two-level set with all those slamming doors. Clint Ramos designed the costumes, several of them flamboyant, and one of them outrageous enough to earn the actress my condolences. Scott Zielinski designed the lighting and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen the sound. The physicality of the staging was churned at fever pitch by Matt Hawkins (fighting choreographer), Elizabeth Laidlaw (intimacy consultant), and Jeff Jenkins (physical comedy consultant).
I don’t understand what Erlbach was trying to accomplish with “The Doppelganger.” Being unsure of his intent, we have to fall back on conjecture. The play ends in a sudden and stark moment of menace, totally unsupported by the comic fripperies that preceded it. So perhaps a valid cautionary statement was trying to be made.
The woman siting next to me said she loved the show but four people in my row did not return after the intermission. So the whole debacle can probably be dismissed with the cliché “If you like this sort of thing this is the sort of thing you will like.” A lot of proven talent on stage and behind the scenes invested a huge amount of energy in this production. The Steppenwolf brain trust obviously believed “The Doppelganger” is worth a slot on the company’s subscription schedule. What were they thinking?
“The Doppelganger” runs through May 27 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $114. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org. April 2018
The show gets a rating ofstars.
Contact Dan: Zeffdaniel@yahoo.com