RedEye

Overloaded production sinks this love story

Philip Dawkins, a hugely talented Chicago writer, has, in his newest work, "Failure: A Love Story," penned a Chicago tale full of emotional riches. Alas, this potentially moving drama about three ill-fated sisters in the 1920s has been saddled with a profoundly frustrating Victory Gardens Theater premiere from director Seth Bockley that's so busy clanging and blowing its own bells and whistles, it completely misses the heart of the story. I can't remember liking a new play so much and so badly wanting immediately to see a different production that has less icing and more cake — and that actually gives these characters, and their lots, some truth and dignity.

As with many great Chicago plays, Dawkins ties his drama to the water. The story begins with of a pair of clockmaker immigrants to Chicago (Guy Massey and Janet Ulrich Brooks) who take the name Fail at Ellis Island. This couple, we're told in this self-aware theatrical piece, have three daughters: Gertrude (Mildred Marie Langford), a serious gal who likes her parents' trade; Nelly (Baize Buzan), a looker who likes jazz and dancing; and Jenny June (Emjoy Gavino), a daring champion swimmer who dreams of being the first woman to cross Lake Michigan. We're also told in the first few minutes that 1928, the year we're now watching, was the last year of each of the Fail sisters' lives.

We even know how they will die: consumption, the trauma of a blunt object and drowning.

Telling an audience about a character's impending demise, and then showing scenes from their life, is a very powerful weapon in the theater. Brian Friel used it brilliantly in "Dancing at Lughnasa." Greek tragedians relied on an audience's foreknowledge. It has the effect of heightening all that you see. And as this play unravels, Dawkins goes one further. He introduces an adopted brother, John (Michael Salinas), whom the Fail family finds abandoned and takes into their collective bosom, only for him to watch them all die. And he introduces a potential love interest for the ladies, one Mortimer Mortimer (Matt Fletcher), who comes to know the meaning of loss in triplicate.

The structure of the piece needs some work. Dawkins spends too much time on the Fail back story and then has to rush the death of the third sister, whose sickness comes from nowhere. And he needs to find a way to make this Mortimer fellow, through whose eyes we experience the demise of the Fail sisters, more central to the work. But his skills as a scribe are very much in evidence. There is some beautiful language in this play, rich imagery and a haunting sense of sadness and of the chaos and fragility of 1920s Chicago.

"Failure: A Love Story" is rich and expressive in its contemplation of a particular moment in the history of an ordinary Chicago family. In particular and most movingly, the play is probing the whole idea of how all of our loves and our happiness are, alas, bound by the confines of time. The central question, really, is a quirky take on that old matter of whether it's best to have loved and lost, or not to have loved at all. And that is a question that stands constant re-examination.

But to do so, one has to care about the characters. And that's the fundamental problem with Bockley's production. Certainly, this is an imaginative, high-concept staging of a play written to be funny in a kind of 1920s-style, faux-vaudeville way. Bockley layers in all kinds of homemade tricks on top of the self-aware aspects of the writing: The acting is all heightened and zany, actors play animals, musical instruments, time pieces, inanimate objects, you name it. They don't dive into the water, say, they effect a parody of diving, as if you were watching a newsreel.

When we hear tell of the birth of a Fail daughter, the very game Brooks jumps up on a table with her legs in the air. On occasion, this stuff is quite droll (Salinas is the most effective because he manages to slip the most pain underneath). But what the show completely misses is the need for contrast. Bockley does not seem to know when he needs to cut his own cleverness. And he doesn't give his actors much of a chance to be real — even when their characters are faced with sudden death, they still play around. Confoundingly. You want to shake them.

This kind of stylization can work if moments of real humanity are allowed to breathe. Not here. Here, everyone seems scared of real emotions and what the play is actually trying to be about.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 30

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.

Running time: 1 hour,

35 minutes

Tickets: $35-$50 at

773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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