Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. By Kirk Lynn. Directed by David Cromer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Being at a party is like being on a train, suggests a character in Cherrywood. You want to sit by the beautiful people or, if those seats are taken, by people who are familiar. Lynn’s übermalleable script—first produced by his Austin, Texas, collective the Rude Mechanicals, the play consists of lines and stage directions that aren’t assigned to characters—is like an express train through Austin’s youth culture (not so different from Chicago’s or any college town’s): It makes stops at music snobbery, pungent analyses of party behavior, bourgeois political chatter and the supernatural-ish suggestion of werewolves.
Given the holes Lynn and the Rude Mechs leave to fill, any director mounting this script serves as de facto cowriter. That’s what makes it an ideal match for Cromer, a director who bursts with concepts but always has truthfulness at heart. As with his current, exquisite Writers’ Theatre revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (not to mention the still-chugging transfer to Off Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre of his Hypocrites-born Our Town), Cromer, with scenic designer Andre LaSalle, has bent Mary-Arrchie’s space to his desire to get his audiences breathing the same air as his cast. Cromer’s ballsiest move, though, is the size of that cast. For his Cherrywood, he’s cherry-picked around 50 of the non-Equity scene’s most arresting actors to populate his party—about the same number onstage as can fit in the house. Remarkably, it feels not gimmicky but absolutely necessary.
Lynn’s text makes subtext its supertext, with partygoers voicing their inner monologues as the script traipses merrily across genres—from locked-room murder mystery to pop philosophy, from sci-fi to poli-sci. But Cromer’s direction of his dozens of actors somehow transcends mere choreography (though actual choreography does appear, in joyful dance sequences by Patrick Andrews) to become a real meditation on group dynamics. The paranoid party eventually, organically opens into an examination of how abstract talk of capital-C change can become paralyzing when we’re confronted with the actual opportunity, and responsibility, of becoming the change we’ve been waiting for. (It might be of interest to certain impatient voters—of which I’m one—that Cherrywood was first performed in 2004.)
There are metaphorical flourishes in Lynn’s script that teeter on the edge of lib-privilege preciousness, such as Caroline Neff’s monologue on superstores and pricing guns. There are also fantastic individual performance moments, including Geoff Button as a socially skittish partygoer, Allison Cain as the neighbor with a historical chip on her shoulder, Rich Cotovsky’s shambling possible shooting victim and Ryan Bourque’s reluctant group conscience. This iteration of Cherrywood is ultimately an overwhelming, sense- assaulting ensemble piece that almost demands a second viewing to fully soak in. It’s also a production that I think could only take place—let alone succeed—in Chicago.