An intensely conceptual play like "Luther" (not the John Osborne play, nor the BBC America thriller, but a new work from New York by Ethan Lipton) relies on an audience buying its central metaphor. In this instance, that metaphor takes the form of a military veteran who is living with a generally prosaic married couple named Walter and Marjorie, and who lands somewhere between a child, a traumatized invalid and a pet.
Lipton, whose play opened last week at the Steep Theatre in Chicago in a production directed by Joanie Schultz, is not trying to be offensive. On the contrary, "Luther" (the play takes its title from its central character) is probing the way we treat our veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder, and is making the case that those who come home from conflicts abroad still are met with a mixture of unctuous ignorance, smug condescension and crippling ambivalence.
That point would be better made if we got to see Luther and his family in a wide variety of settings over a sweep of time. But while the early scenes are powerful and intriguing, the play jumps the shark when it heads off to Walter's corporate office party, to which he and Marjorie ill-advisedly bring Luther, who proceeds to bite a besuited someone's face.
That should be enough to tell you that "Luther" is a black comedy — blackout-black you might say — but as tempting as they are, office parties are lousy settings for such comedic stylings because they are too easy and obvious. And in this Steep production at least, "Luther" never gets out of the party alive.
Schultz does her best to honor the eclecticism of this strange play — which also includes several characters, including one Fran Liebowitz, played by sock puppets. There are a trio of honest, sometimes poignant performances from Kendra Thulin and Peter Moore as the couple, and Michael Salinas, who does quite well with the tricky role of Luther.
Lipton, a writer with promise, reveals information very slowly and deliberately, with a notable economy, given the outlandish overall gestalt. But that crucial sense of progression is what this production seems to miss. Although the show is intermittently entertaining — and revealing — on a moment-by-moment basis, it just does not come with an arc you can grasp. Instead of a sense of increasing dislocation, we get a staccato chop that leaves one adrift and, on occasion, bored. "Luther" needs a highly disciplined production, although it's not hard here to imagine all the temptations to the contrary.
When: Through March 2
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $20-$22 at 866-811-4111 or steeptheatre.com