With the recent price hikes, less frequent schedules and constant construction, Chicagoans don’t need another reason to dislike the CTA. Manny Tamayo’s public-transit thriller will make audience members seriously consider investing in a vehicle after sitting through 70 harrowing minutes of a hostage situation on a delayed westbound train. Matt Engle’s claustrophobic production is not the most pleasant viewing experience, but it remarkably captures the horror of the circumstances, creating the feeling that everyone is trapped in a giant metal cage with a wild beast.
Taking a page from the Coen Brothers’ wholly fictional Fargo, the show begins with an announcement that it is a dramatization of true events being presented with the consent of the victims’ families. It’s true that people once boarded an El car, but Tamayo’s play is otherwise a work of fiction. And like Fargo, Incident on Run #1217 is a brutal, disturbing and very violent story about a crime that goes horribly off the rails. Tamayo has a talent for gritty, naturalistic dialogue, which combined with Engle’s fine-tuned control of tension results in a quickly paced trip through the dark side of humanity.
Benny (Sean Patrick Leonard) and Travis (Roy Gonzalez) are two drunk junkies with a knife and an opportunity when CTA run #1217 catches fire on the track. A hotheaded painter (José Antonio García), passed-out vagrant (LaQuin Groves) and a hostile married couple are the unlucky passengers. When someone tries to be a hero, things go very bad very fast, setting off a chain of events that are not for the faint of heart. The split stage allows for each half of the audience to see the others’ reactions, and the squeamish faces and squirming bodies across the way prove that Tamayo, Engle, and the ensemble are doing something right.
Leonard’s Benny is a vicious force of nature, his brute strength amplified by Johnny Moran’s devastating fight choreography. As Benny’s soft-spoken partner in crime, Gonzalez does exceptional work depicting Travis’s gradual deterioration when their robbery becomes much more bloody than expected. Mandy Walsh’s Sara is a refreshing shot of estrogen in the waves of testosterone, although Sara ultimately proves to have much bigger balls than her cowardly prick of a husband. The entire ensemble is fiercely dedicated to their roles, painting a portrait of CTA terror that had me hailing a cab after the show.