"Hellcab," playwright Will Kern's black comedy about a hellish winter day in the life of a cipherlike Chicago cabby, is not, let us stipulate upfront, the aesthetic equal of "American Buffalo," "A Raisin in the Sun" or "The Front Page." But when you're ticking off iconic Chicago plays — shows that have really captured the heart of this city — "Hellcab" fully merits a place on the list.
Back in the early 1990s, "Hellcab" ran for years at the old Ivanhoe Theater, and thousands of urbanites and tourists paid their fare and took a ride through the urban jungle, accompanied by a constantly changing cast of cabdrivers, varying in race, gender and mood. The passengers changed too; it seemed like every actor in Chicago showed up at one point or another. And, when I'd see the show from time to time, I'd find a production that kept shifting mood. Sometimes it felt like a series of rapid-fire Second City sketches; sometimes it was like a day spent vicariously in hell. With the meter running.
Director Darrell W. Cox's dark, droll, 20th-anniversary production at Profiles Theatre, which is not to be missed by lovers of plays about Chicago, understands that the show is, most important, about the struggles of life in the big city and the loneliness and terrors that befall many of its citizens. The plot device is perfectly simple — the play starts with our driver (now played by the perfectly cast Konstantin Khrustov as a Russian immigrant, albeit via Rockford) trying to unfreeze his soul on one of those frigid mornings we're all dreading. We meet his diverse array of fares: couples making out, couples fighting, victims of crimes, possible perpetrators of crimes, chatty types, taciturn souls, alcoholics, lawyers, evangelicals, yuppies, a self-loathing deli owner — you get the idea. Many try to involve their driver, who just wants to get through the day and make a buck, in their crises.
In that original 1990s production, a small ensemble of actors would play several roles each. Cox does something far more arresting: He casts different Chicago actors in each of the 34 parts. You never see anyone twice. I haven't seen so many actors (most of whom I'd not seen before and many of whom are terrific) stuffed into a storefront theater since David Cromer's "Our Town" pulled in people off the street for the graveyard scene in the basement of the Chopin Theatre.
This massive cast can't make much economic sense, which makes it one of those only-in-Chicago experiences. But it comes with two huge advantages. One is that it allows Cox to cast precisely to type. Truly, the array of characters rushing in and out of the taxi (designed by Shaun Renfro) is a sight to behold. The other, more important asset, is that it means that actors are only getting 5 or 10 minutes onstage (some of them less) and thus the stakes of the show rise exponentially. It's a perfect match for the conceit: Every time someone new catches a ride, and that happens a couple of dozen times in 90 minutes, the show gains sudden new energy. It makes for quite the eye-popping ride. And that's exactly the lot of the cabby: His day grinds on monotonously; his hyped-up fares always are scurrying off somewhere, or escaping from some place or fellow human.
All that would be a mere gimmick, though, without Khrustov, who understands his comic Beckettian role, driving on and on, loathing his job but trapped in a profession where he cannot control whom he encounters, or who will get in his face. With his face set mostly in neutral, and a demeanor that defines stoicism with interludes of panic, Khrustov's cabby is both enviable (in that he can drive away from all these miserable people) and deeply empathetic (in that we know they'll control his tomorrow too). He is a near-perfect guide; this is one of the best performances of the year.
"Hellcab" also has a grungier environment this time around. Profiles occupies a former speakeasy with just the right amount of faded, peeling, Chicago-style elegance to set the show in a broader urban context and make the outer container work. The script is not updated; we're still in the era of $4 cab fares. At times, you're struck with the thought that it would have been easy enough to freshen the script for the era of Rahm Emanuel and the $3.50 meter drop, especially because the characters of this town and their neuroses have changed not a wit. Nonetheless, "Hellcab" works quite wonderfully as an entertaining portrait of an urban moment, back when hookers still prowled Madison Street, the Bulls ruled the world, Richard M. Daley was wrestling a city into modernity, and the South Loop still was a world of dark alleys and Chicago shadows that could swallow a cab and driver.
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$40 at 773-549-1815 or profilestheatre.org