A new play grapples with balancing artistic ambitions and chosen families.
While plugging his new book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America on a recent PBS NewsHour segment, author Michael Kaiser identifies the type of theaters, orchestras and museums hit hardest by America's waining connection to the fine arts. It's not the most famous performance companies and institutions, he claims, nor the shoestring-budgeted storefronts that are most at risk, but the mid-sized and regional companies that are taking the biggest brunt from online entertainment, dips in philanthropic funding, and increased ticket prices.
In other words, the exact kinds of companies that have long sustained Chicago's reputation as one of the country's foremost performance hubs are the ones feeling the biggest hit.
In that respect, you can't fault the issues explored in Ryan Patrick Dolan's new play for not being timely or relevant. His twentysomething characters, including a young actress, Kelly (Allie Kunkler), and a Windy City–hardened gourmet ice cream shop manager, Mark (Caleb Fullen), feel like the sort of real-life archetypes anyone involved in the Chicago arts scene knows by heart.
Working as the face and right-hand man of his friend Russell's (Terence Sims) creamery, Mark takes a personal liking to his newest hire, Kelly, an acerbic punk-rock beauty with dreams of making it big as a performer. With their friends Gus (Joel Reitsma) and Mackenzie (Becca Slack), the quintet form an idyllic urban life testing out new recipes, growing their business and meddling in each others' love lives.
That balance is put in jeopardy when Kelly, like much of Chicago's comedy and acting talent, turns to the dark side and moves to Los Angeles. One of the biggest laughs at opening came when Slack disgustedly dismissed "doing a web series," a joke that perfectly portrays the sense of a city in the middle of growing pains while trying to redefine its identity.
Less convincing is the melodramatic turn Dolan's play opens with and ultimately centers on. Years after landing a lead character on a successful series out west, Kelly flies home to the Midwest to visit Gus, who's comatose after succumbing to a brain tumor. That also means clashing with Mark, who behaves with righteous indignation as the one who stuck it out.
Fullen does well to humanize Mark, who I imagine reads whinier on paper than he does in Fullen's introspective, often funny performance. But the central conflict is still a perplexing one: What exactly does Kelly have to apologize for by pursuing her ambitions, and what is it about sticking it out in the Midwest that provides Mark with some sort of moral superiority?
Perhaps that was a part of the picture Dolan was trying to paint, but there's an unshakable sense Mark and his predicament—which is not particularly profound—are supposed to be more empathetic than they really are. Still, it's an earnest dispatch from a writer who loves his city, warts and all.
Chemically Imbalanced Theater. By Ryan Patrick Dolan. Directed by Mary Rose O'Connor. With Patrice Foster, Caleb Fullen, Allie Kunkler, Joel Reitsma, Terence Sims, Becca Slack, Rebecca Sohn. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.