At the height of the so-called culture wars of 20 years past — when the late Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms were raging against the "obscene" solo artists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and performers like Tim Miller and their supporters were fighting back in kind — you could look from the sidelines and marvel at the distance between these two passionate American constituencies. Never the twain shall meet, it seemed.
Well, in Lee Blessing's very amusing little play "Chesapeake," now in a most lively production in Chicago from the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, the twain do meet. With one such senator's dog, a savvy Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lucky, acting as a very involved intermediary.
Sure, Blessing fictionalizes the narrative characters — the folksy, pooch-loving senator of whom we hear (but never see) is named Therm Pooley. And Blessing tells his shaggy-dog story entirely through the mouth of a performance artist named Kerr, played by Greg Matthew Anderson, which inevitably stacks the deck. But since Kerr is painfully insecure, a trait that goes with the territory, "Chesapeake" in no way ends up as a mere rehashing of familiar argument, but manages to be both wry and reflective.
At one exemplary point, Kerr bemoans the way the arts come up with painfully symbolic forms of political protest, such as the Day Without Art. "What will we do?" Kerr asks in mock horror, "wait until tomorrow?"
There are plenty of other laughs in this ironic show — which surely is Blessing's funniest piece of work to date. This particular production, deftly directed by Shawn Douglass, benefits greatly from Anderson's carefully toned and, more importantly, vulnerable performance. You find yourself liking this neurotic artist, a fellow who can't say for certain if he has anything to offer an audience, and looking forward to his next attempt to discover more about his famous political nemesis and his political prop of a dog.
"Chesapeake" is, for a sure, a little long and it sags some in the middle of the second act, when Kerr finds himself in very strange circumstances. It would be better, for sure, if the amusements were contained in a single act.
But to Blessing's great credit, "Chesapeake" can be enjoyed by people who don't give a darn about whether or not the NEA gets re-authorized or whether those feisty senators from the Carolinas knew whereof they spoke. But if you do have an interest in the arts, and in the dastardly doings of its perennial antagonists on the right, you'll have a very good time.
For Anderson, a Chicago actor who has been waiting for such a chance to demonstrate what he can do, this is a fine hour, not the least because he gets the tone of his guy exactly right. Solo shows never work unless you like the actor with whom you are investing your evening, and Anderson is so fun and empathetic, you're sorry to see him exit.
In the most revealing moment of the night, which Anderson milks quite deliciously, our hero Kerr comes to see he has been wrong about one very important thing. Conservatives don't really want to abolish the NEA, it's too useful a tool with which to beat liberals over the head.
When: Through April 29
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $30-$40 at 773-404-7336