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A shaky production for a play about an architect as artist

THEATER REVIEW: "In a Garden" at A Red Orchid Theatre ★★

Chris Jones

5:04 PM CDT, April 15, 2013

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There are writers out there who make a perfectly decent living penning scripts and screenplays that never get produced. And there are architects who make perfectly decent livings designing buildings that never get built. But can they be happy?

It's an interesting question, no? Plenty of artists produce without pay, which you'd think would be worse than being paid without producing but, over time, maybe not. The conundrum is very much at the center of Howard Korder's play, "In a Garden." We watch an architect named Hacket flounder around in a fictional Middle Eastern country where a charming fellow (who may or not be in power) has commissioned him to build something resonant, aspirational and beautiful.

Hacket, played in director Lou Contey's A Red Orchid Theatre production by the excellent Larry Grimm — has a Sisyphean life filled with travel, meetings, concepts, reconsiderations and attempts to read clients' minds and the changing temporal moment. Designing actual buildings? Not so much.

Korder's very interesting play, which is set between 1989 and 2004, isn't just about the lot of those who must work under commission. Given the setting, he's also probing that ever-rich theme of the ever-complex relationship between the United States and the likes of Iraq or Iran. At one moment you have mutual need: The Middle East wants world-class buildings from star designers; American star designers love the big checks. A few years later you might have destruction, then regime change, then a process that can start all over again with the new group in power. Perhaps it's the way of the arts. Perhaps it's one absurdity piled on top of another.

"In a Garden," which is a terrific, concise piece of satiric writing, doesn't really get the production it needs at A Red Orchid, where the show seems to get trapped in unnecessarily obtuse Middle Eastern dialects. Rom Barkhordar has his moments as the minister of culture, Othman, but the performance lacks the energy, zest and surety to propel the show forward. Similarly, Emilio Robles, who plays the ruling Najid, lets every vocal tic imaginable roll around his tongue, but at the expense of dramatic impetus.

Grimm does indeed show us a neoteric under a pressure, but he can't inject tension alone. There are nine scenes in the show and they all need to move much more quickly than Contey's overly ponderous production allows.

cjones5@tribune.com

When: Through May 19

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $25-$30 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.org