One day, perhaps, the hugely talented writer Brett Neveu will find himself running a network, a movie studio or some other establishment, listening all day to pitches from anxious writers with clever but complicated ideas that could cost a producer money he'll never make back. I wonder what kind of plays he'll write then. Perhaps they'll be lamentations about misunderstood cultural guardians and the seductive powers of artists.
In the meantime, though, Neveu is very much on the other side of the table and his highly entertaining, metaphor-crusted new work "Megacosm" continues this writer's thinly disguised obsession with original creative works, their oft-fraught creators, and the troubled reception they get within what you might call the post-industrial, corporate entertainment complex of a dystopian world. In these places where art goes to die, or to be made into a product, the most beautiful ideas can find themselves stolen, hidden, morphed, disappeared or smashed into tragic little consumable pieces.
In the case of "Megacosm," set in exactly such a world, we meet a creator of a clever little thing that consists of a group of tiny people who seem to live inside a cardboard box. Although they cannot be seen except with a powerful video camera, these Lilliputian critters nonetheless talk, dance, appear to feel real human emotions and even, when they have a bit of privacy, have sex. But in Neveu's world, it's not enough to have created such a neat and organic toy. Nope. One also has to sell it to someone who, in turn, can market it to the world.
And so Chris (played, in blisteringly intense fashion, by the rumpled Larry Grimm) finds himself in the weird orbit of a suited fellow named Britt (the clipped but manic Danny McCarthy), the ruler of a paranoid kingdom with his own twisted sidekick (played by David Steiger and replete with a horrific head wound and creepy walk).
Outside this locked-down pressure cooker (akin to something penned by Ian Fleming) the world seems to flail, cry, attack and burn. We're never sure why, or even if this Britt has just created some gigantic stage set for his own importance. But we quickly see that Chris is not the first to pitch a product here; others with great ideas have ended up with their inventions calcified, stuck away in metallic vaults or, in the worse cases of all, malformed forever. One of those malformations even shows up in the person of Eden Strong, a fabulous kid actress.
Watching all of this unfold isn't entirely a cohesive experience — I found the chaotic final 10 minutes too much of a jumble to serve the play's deeper themes — but director Dado's ebullient, risk-heavy premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre comes with great theatrical potency (John Dalton's set is spectacular), several laughs and a Chicago-style fearlessness that serves this piece very well. You will not, I promise, be bored for an instant.
The play, more successful than "Do the Hustle," which Neveu premiered last year and which looked at the various dependencies of creativity as a kind of shell game, doesn't only put you in mind of the young artist among the sharks of Hollywood, which Chicago playwrights have enjoyed dissecting for decades. "Megacosm" ("Microcosm," we're told, would never sell) also brings to your head the late Steve Jobs and his famous ability not necessarily for having great ideas but improving on the ideas of others, even if a good portion of that improvement had to do with superior marketing. And you get the sense throughout that Neveu is poking fun at himself as his Chris stares out lovingly at his little people in a box, trying to convince anyone and everyone that they are the bee's knees, can tell any story you want, and generally are more real than reality itself.
Frankly, I wish the piece didn't abandon this little crew, a fabulously audacious and flexible metaphor, so quickly in favor of exposing yet more trauma in the world outside this play, and yet more moral turpitude in the corporate culture lab. We get all that. But we like the small souls immediately and fear for their survival. And we want to know far more about them, which perhaps suggests that consumers can even sometimes decide for themselves.
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.org