Over the last three years, Tony Fitzpatrick, the burly, sweaty, slightly intimidating Irishman, and Stan Klein, his slighter, shyer but equally revealing Jewish sidekick, have become a much-anticipated part of my summer. They're like artier, grittier, less polished versions of David Letterman and Paul Shaffer, except Fitzpatrick, an inveterate truth teller, has no time for cynicism and his relationship with Klein is really closer to Letterman's treatment of the late, great Calvert DeForest, aka Larry "Bud" Melman.
Ah, forget that. Any New York comparison is absurd. Fitzpatrick and Klein (their lives and on-stage personas being much the same) are strictly Chicago characters. And their summer variety shows, which feature videography, art and music and that include monologue, memoir, confessional and strangely potent little scenes that re-create their banter in Fitzpatrick's studio, don't have an obvious comparison, and therein lies much of their appeal.
But whereas the rough and readiness of previous Fitzpatrick-Klein collaborations, "This Train" and "Stations Lost," was forgiven and forgivable, this year's edition, "Nickel History: The Nation of Heat," needs no such absolution. You wouldn't call it slick — Fitzpatrick and Klein have about as much in common with trained actors as Mitt Romney has with the indebted proprietor of a lemonade stand — but the director, Ann Filmer, has wrangled something shrewdly structured and even, to dangle a very dangerous term in the Fitzpatrick aesthetic, bordering on the polished.
The finish, thankfully, still has peaks, valleys, crevices and truths aplenty. Three topics come to the fore: New Orleans, one of Fitzpatrick's most worthy obsessions and a city to which he really should tour this piece, the Chicago Cubs, object of Fitzpatrick derision and Klein aspiration, and fathers. Both of these men have dads of the World War II generation. Neither man comes from wealth or comfort. Neither escaped the back of his late father's hand. Neither can escape them still. Fitzpatrick, in particular, was not supported in his passion — his father insisted that art was an avocation and preferred his son actually get a "J.O.B." — but the show turns out to be a strikingly moving tribute to the wisdom and sacrifices of these men who believed that work dignified and who dispensed nuggets like "learn enough lessons a nickel at a time and, someday, you may add up to a buck." As you get older, you see the wisdom of that.
One of Fitzpatrick's memes is that he talks (and paints and cuts) a good game, but never knows if he really is worth anything (a consequence of an art-deriding parent, of course). Such insecurity rarely has been more poignantly expressed. A highlight herein is the hilarious recounting of Fitzpatrick's catastrophic time as a waiter at T.G.I. Friday's in Lombard, where the managers must be out of their minds because, boy, you sure don't want Fitzpatrick, friend to bookies' enforcers, delivering your fruity cocktail. In this year's show, actress Carolyn Hoerdemann, herself a big personality, floats through the proceedings like some hard-to-catch World War II pin-up, even as Fitzpatrick's art melds with the sepia-toned videography of Kristin Reeves, and Anna Fermin sings some of the music of the era and beyond, accompanied by guitarist John Rice.
Even as we ponder fathers and sons, and how the latter usually ends up like the former, we watch Klein's passionate quest, filmed at Wrigley Field, to become a Cubs usher. You know from the start it will end badly — Klein is not someone you expect to actually get hired and the whole project is, in the world of these shows, an act of disloyalty to the Tony moral code, which despises Yuppies, pretenders and thus a broad swath of Chicago's North Side. Klein tries anyway, admitting his past and current obligations and frantically trying to escape from both. No dice. Fitzpatrick always looms.
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $27 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye