Falling apart as ambition falls short

THEATER REVIEW: "I Am Going to Change the World" at Chicago Dramatists ★★★

At one point in Andrew Hinderaker's fascinating new play, "I Am Going to Change the World," a character observes that most people would not get out of bed in the morning if they actually knew how their lives were going to turn out.

For most of us, one can only hope, that's overstating life's eventual disappointments. But this is a very interesting Chicago play — from one of this theater town's most promising young writers — that has a great deal to say about how the price of failure, or merely mediocre achievement, has increased exponentially in a world where the rise of social media has made success all the more visible.

If you hesitate to check in on your overachieving friends' Facebook status updates, or if you find yourself looking at the Twitter feed of the lover or spouse who left you, endlessly torturing yourself, you'll immediately understand what Hinderaker is writing about here.

The main character in this drama, which had its world premiere Friday night at Chicago Dramatists under the direction of Jonathan Berry, is a young man named John (the unstinting Nicholas Harazin) who charts his entire life on a piece of paper when he is 9 years old: He will be his high school valedictorian, he will graduate at the top of his class from the University of Chicago, he will marry his lovely girlfriend, he will join Goldman Sachs — the most powerful bank he can think of — immediately thereafter and he will take over Goldman Sachs by the time he is 35. At the start of the play, John appears to be fulfilling his prodigious ambitions. He has indeed graduated, top of his class, from the University of Chicago. We hear his graduation speech. There is indeed a lovely girlfriend, albeit unseen. And he is headed for an interview with Goldman in the Loop.

But then things go very wrong. And when you've always had a plan that has always gone well, you don't necessarily know what to do.

Hinderaker's plot gets very complicated, very quickly. The conceit here is that John can't process any deviation from his course, which flows partly from his personal ambition and partly from a desire to right the wrongs done to his father, Frank (the gruff, excellent Norm Woodel), who has been obliged to move wife Marla (played by Meg Thalken) and son to Gary, Ind., where he still works steel at the age of 67. And thus our high-achiever John finds himself in a kind of "Groundhog Day"-like time warp, reliving key moments of his life and constantly returning to his point of crisis, unable to move on from the trap.

Hinderaker, who also wrote "Suicide Incorporated," which moved to New York's Lincoln Center, likes high-concept plays, and his main challenge as a writer at this juncture is to get better at allowing the rich structure of his dramas to move to the back burner and allow his characters to develop stronger emotional relationships with his audience. There are times in this play when you want to be relieved of the demand to track yet another clever scene and figure out what is in real time and what is in someone's head (John frequents a shrink, played by Judy Blue) and just spend time with an empathetic and very recognizable character. Hinderaker has created a fascinating protagonist, but he has yet to wrestle him to the ground. Confoundingly, he likes to stay on a set track. Rather like John, actually.

It's rare to feel that the scenes in a play are too short, but that's the case here. Not only is John's relationship with his parents underexplored, but so is the one with his best friend, Troy (Ed Flynn). But the feeling of wanting to go deeper into this guy's head, and hear him cry out, is tribute to the richness of Hinderaker (and Harazin's) joint creation and the poignancy of these issues. This play is a very deft exploration of pressure; it will feel true to any working-class kid who overachieved relentlessly and then hit one of life's many walls.

Berry's production is smart, deftly cast and well-paced. It does, though, sometimes get trapped in a confining set that creates a cramped kitchen where, in an apparent, hyper-realistic nod to David Cromer's "Our Town," Thalken's Marla cooks breakfast on a real stove. The sessions with Blue's Dr. Jensen all take place on a riser, leaving little room for the basement, where Troy tries to get his pal to understand that reduced expectations do not mean the end of a life.

Given that John also has an interest in the Van Buren Street bridge, where the play also goes, all these overly realistic little rooms through which the actors must clamber seem unnecessary. Especially since the videographer, Mike Tutaj, is on hand with his usual, textured backdrops, a simpler, more fluid environment would better serve what's a very potent new play about things not turning out as you once wished.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through July 1

Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $32 at 312-633-0630 or chicagodramatists.org

CHICAGO

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