Roy, the central character in "Illegal Use of Hands," the new play by James Still from the American Blues Theater in Chicago, is the kind of figure much discussed at the political conventions these last two weeks. Laid off from a decent job, this ordinary, small-town American is stuck in low-paying, burger-flipping jobs, alongside people no older than his son. He can't even get hired as a greeter at Walmart. "Minimum wage," he says, "makes a man feel minimum."
But some aspects of Roy weren't so much discussed in Tampa or Charlotte: he's a racist, sexist, profane, homophobic malcontent. As colorfully played by Howie Johnson under Sandy Shinner's direction, he's always just a few wrong words away from a fight, and ever-ready with some crass joke or another. And therein sits one of the biggest problems with Still's new drama. For much of its 80 minutes, you have to listen to all of Roy's garbage and watch his antics. It wears you down. In the end, Still really wants us to empathize with Roy's tough spot, and it's worth noting that these characters, so numerous in today's America, are underexplored in the theater. But long before the end of this play, you just want to put yourself in a room where Roy is not talking.
His verbosity and his vulnerability, you might say, are seriously out of whack, both in the script and in Shinner's production.
The set up here is that Roy and an old high-school pal named Cody (Steve Key) have decided to confront and mess with the official who called back the touchdown during their homecoming football game long ago, thus denying the team a championship and, by extension, beginning the downward spiral of emasculated male lives. They show up at his place in their broken-down Chevy (Grant Sabin's single-room set allows for flashbacks to the field that night). Given the iconic role in the American economy played by Chevrolet, and the theatrical chestnut that any broken car representing broken men will one day mysteriously start up again, you wait for the revs. All we need is Barack Obama turning the crank.
The victim in question, Wallace (Dennis Zacek), is now an eccentric, laconic dude who spent time in Vietnam, drinks Scotch, misses his dead wife, and yet retains a certain nimble defense when it come to a fight. Zacek is bone dry and amusing and Still clearly intends us to wonder if he will be a force of redemption or destruction — and you do. But this kind of character wanders perilously close to cliche. Wallace generally occupies the kind of potentially paternalistic, semi-mystical place in this drama that we most usually associated with movies featuring Morgan Freeman or Clint Eastwood. You know his type all too well.
That's really what Still should take away from this world premiere: the symbols in his drama currently overwhelm any full sense of believability. The character of Cody, who is gay, is the most-underdeveloped of the trio. It's never entirely clear what he's doing or, most tellingly, why he's hanging out with the Cro Magnon Roy, whose company is clearly poisonous. That all needs some serious attention. So, for that matter, does the humor, or the lack thereof. Still seems to be going for a pseudo-gothic style of tragicomedy. Fair enough, but that requires lines and business that amuse as well as induce pity and fear. Few such moments are forthcoming.
Shinner's production is reasonably solid — all three of these actors are very capable players and each have their moments — but it can't make you believe in a rough-going play not funny enough to be entertaining nor dramatic enough to be real.
When: Through Sept. 30
Where: American Blues Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $10-$39 at 773-871-3000 and americanbluestheater.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye