With its posters of scantily clad women, signs promoting Jell-O shots and Jagermeister, bottles of vodka you can reach out and touch, and the faux-domestic scattering of couches and make-out spots, the second-floor Lincoln Park bar known as The Apartment Lounge feels like a slightly upmarket version of a Greek Row living room from Ann Arbor, Mich., or Columbus, Ohio. The target audience demographic, clearly, is just a few years past graduation — brothers and sisters looking for a cozy, familiar, campus-like drinking and mating spot in the jungle that is this big, cruel city.
The Apartment Lounge, then, is an ideal setting for a new commercial production of "Frat," the surprisingly smart and juicy hit show created by The New Colony in 2009 and re-mounted as a for-profit endeavor by John Olson, a local online theater critic going over to the dark side of theatrical producing. "Frat" is conceived as a promenade-style production: The audience wanders around the bar, watching scenes erupt in areas that, without much of a stretch, becoming living rooms, bedrooms and hallways.
Based on playwright Evan Linder's own experiences at the College of Charleston in South Carolina — which will not be promoting this show — "Frat" is a closely observed picture of what surely qualifies as a genuine American subculture, identified by the age (about 18-23) and pursuits (women, booze, some definition of brotherhood, maybe even higher education) of its adherents.
You would not call "Frat" a rousing endorsement of Greek life. Nor has it much in common with "Animal House," aside from a shared interest in bonding rituals. "Frat" is, at its core, an unstinting show about the demeaning practice of hazing — and it is certainly does not make a middle-aged man like myself crave the return of his youth. On the contrary, it's a bit like watching a documentary about the cruelties of middle-school kids and thinking that, while it would surely be nice to be young again, nobody in their right mind would ever want to go back and experience that particular adolescent hell for a second time.
That's not to say "Frat" wants to be a cautionary tale (it does not) or lacks amusement. On the contrary, Linder's writing is frequently very funny, in a wry, droll sort of way.
"Any idea how much hell they're gonna put us through?" asks one fraternity pledge of another, speaking rhetorically. "I think 'hell week' kind of tipped me off to that," says his pal, making Linder's broader point that while pledges are to be pitied, they are all volunteers. One longtime brother begins his pompous speech to the newbies with: "This is the sixth pledge class I've seen," a telling line that gets one of those rolling laughs.
Linder (who also appears in the show) has been smart enough to focus his show around one particular pledge, a kind of everyman figure named Todd. Todd is played with a rich sense of innocence by Pat Coakley, who leads an exceptionally sharp and fearless ensemble of 18 young actors shrewdly directed by Andrew Hobgood. The cast of "Frat" also includes young women who function as moral beacons, objects of desire and ridicule, and old-fashioned pledge-bait (Thea Lux, who plays the promiscuous Natalie, combines the comedy with a delicious air of self-loathing).
I think "Frat" needs a better pop at the end — something that takes the show out of the realm of real-time observation (although the discipline, precision and creativity of that observation is a remarkable achievement here). It could commit to a clearer point of view. But "Frat" is far from facile; it's a sophisticated piece of original, Chicago-style theater that walks the same deft line between dignity and the abyss that the pledges must tiptoe themselves.
Some fall, others thrive. Some question, others buy into the unexplored life. Linder carefully captures the diversity of fraternity life. One brother favors a pledge named Hood, purely on the ground that they'll be able to call him Brother Hood; another understands that pledging is admission to an elite community that comes with its lifelong privileges.
"These are the guys who'll be standing up next to you at your wedding and putting you in the ground at your funeral," Linder's Andy says to the wide-eyed pledges, his militaristic authority mixing with emotion. This is the show at its best; it needs more lines like these. As you watch, a bit terrified, you know that he could be wrong, but in all probability, he'll be right. And then you wonder who'll stand up at your funeral.
When: Through Oct. 22
Where: The Apartment Lounge, 2251 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $28.50 at 773-404-7336 or greenhousetheater.tix.com