The Den Theatre. By Will Dunne. Directed by Ron Wells. With Tony Bozzuto, Michael Downey, Ted Hoerl, Robert Koon, John Luzar and Brad Woodard. 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Chicago playwright Will Dunne digs up an obscure name from the footnotes of Illinois history in this true story about a gang of criminals with an exhumation conspiracy of their own. In 1876, immigrant and petty thief Lewis Swegles (Tony Bozzuto) accepts an offer from a U.S. Secret Service officer (Brad Woodard) to act as an informant in a counterfeiting investigation. The target: a gang of Irish "coney men" who Swegles agrees—for $5 per day, a chunk of his soul, and what's left of his nerves—to infiltrate at a seedy Madison Street pub, then report his findings back to the authorities. Already in over his head, the agent inadvertently stumbles on a much riskier ruse involving some tools and the corpse of the former president of the United States.
That's not a spoiler, of course, given that it's the premise of the show, but director Ron Wells's production drops that twist toward the end of the second act with the sort of bravado you'd expect from a real game changer. That handling of plot development is indicative of much of Dunne's script, which goes through the trouble of telling a fascinating, exciting nonfiction story without much stock in the local or character context that makes it interesting.
That's not to say Dunne spares the details. Swegles's narrative itself is diligently handled, but so much so that its simplicity undercuts the sense of tension the story calls for. In a string of short lights-up-lights-down scenes, we're given each of the characters' motivations—though we never really see the undercover officer's struggle to save his name from his criminal past, we're told about it blankly and repeatedly through exposition. Same goes for the early Chicago economic desperation and racial tensions among the Irish suffered by grizzled barkeep and conspirator Michael Thomas Downey. Beyond declarations, we never really see what's at stake. Bozzuto, a warm actor with an inherent sweetness, humanizes Swegles's struggle to an extent, but the action and heart of his story remains very much entombed.