Say what you will about the Profiles Theatre in Chicago, this company knows how to nail the juicy plays of Neil LaBute.
The prolific scribe (who cut his teeth in Chicago back in the day) has rewarded the storefront theater's affinity for his works with a willingness to offer up his latest and hottest. In this case, he's granted Profiles Theatre the world premiere of the stage version of "In the Company of Men," the 1997 movie that pretty much launched LaBute's career. I saw a lot of early LaBute plays in the early 1990s at the Theatre Building or the old Cafe Voltaire (often with the playwright lurking in the back), including the play that became the 1998 movie "Your Friends & Neighbors." But "In the Company of Men" was not done in Chicago, or anywhere else outside of LaBute's student endeavors, before becoming a screenplay and a hit at Sundance.
LaBute now has turned it into a play, and so here we are again, squirming and uncomfortable, but this time without a dark cinema for protection.
If you recall the movie, the plot involves two corporate-style gentlemen in their late 20s who behave as such gentleman do in the early entertainments of LaBute — which is to say they comport themselves as louses. Smarting, he claims, from a breakup, Chad (Jordan Brown) hatches a scheme in the men's room with his pal Howard (Brennan Roche) to humiliate a young woman at their office. The idea, whereby to teach the females of the species a lesson and reassert male dominance, is that both these guys will date the same girl simultaneously, leading her on before dropping and humiliating her at a moment of their mutual choosing. Most writers would think that would raise the stakes sufficiently. LaBute went a tad further. He made the young woman — Christine, played by Jessica Honor Carleton — deaf.
Those with lesser understanding of LaBute tend to jump to the obvious — make the guys total jerks and the woman a victim and turn the show into a parable about the consequences of bad male behavior. That might be the politically correct way to go, but it kills the theatricality of the piece. Sure, part of the appeal of this 90-minute affair is to squirm in one's seat and, thanks in no small part to Brown's wavy-haired encapsulation of the smug young predator in the workplace, squirm you do. If you are like me, you'll spend part of your time in the theater (a former speak-easy) recalling certain real-life referents to these characters and wishing them all kinds of ill as they jump over you on their way up to the corporate heavens, may they rot once they get there.
But aside from his mordant wit and whip-fast pace, the director Rick Snyder's great strength here is in the way that he fleshes out the cubicle Satan and his sidekick, focusing on the moments when the faintest glimpse of compassion or complexity flicker across their brows. That's the great, underappreciated touchstone in LaBute's writing: the moments when his odious characters have to bat back their internal human decency. Roche especially nails another crucial LaBute trait: complete and utter insecurity. He's like a wounded kid, and you want nothing so much as to kick him when he's down.
Which brings us to Carleton and Christine, the object of this nasty little scheme. Carleton is a hearing actress, which some may find problematic, but her bio notes that she has studied sign language for many years and there is palpable integrity to this character. This is a very tough assignment for a young actress and Carleton navigates it exceptionally well, avoiding the traps of sentimentalism but also breaking down with a level of realism so intense that it's kind of shocking, and shocking an audience is especially difficult in a play designed to do just that.
LaBute certainly has made this into a viable and wickedly amusing stage piece: there are a few necessary additions of modern electronics, and changes in office-speak, but it's otherwise reasonably close to the screenplay. The design, by Thad Hallstein, is a very clever jigsaw puzzle of a set, so you don't feel in any way like you're lost in a multi-locale movie; rather that the offices and urinals and bedrooms are all sprouting from the same well, so to speak. These characters divide their time between them with such easy fluidity, it's not entirely surprising they mix up what is appropriate where.
When: Through June 30
Where: Profiles Theatre Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$40 at 773-549-1815 or profilestheatre.org