'Unspeakable' not up to theatricalizing life of Richard Pryor

“Unspeakable,” a new drama inspired by the life of late comedian Richard Pryor, is filled with head-scratching, “What were they thinking?” moments.

Conceived and directed by Rod Gailes and co-written with its star, James Murray Jackson Jr. as Pryor, “Unspeakable” — now at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place — is billed as “A Dramatic Fantasia.” But it's really more of a rudderless mess.

Set in 2005 when Pryor died after years of suffering from multiple sclerosis, “Unspeakable” appears to unfold as a series of fragments inside the comedian's mind. Past memories and influential people ricochet around in a nonlinear fashion throughout designer Felix E. Cochren's multitiered red set to recount Pryor's many struggles with drugs, fame and domestic strife.

Considered one of the most influential comedians of his time, Pryor's life was anything but funny. The son of a prostitute, Pryor was raised in his grandmother's brothel in Peoria, where he endured physical and sexual abuse that the play explicitly explores.

One of the big problems — and there are many — has to do with what “Unspeakable” could, and could not, use. Since the play wasn't authorized by the Pryor estate, the writers were unable to draw on the comedian's copious material, except in name-dropping passing, thus robbing “Unspeakable” of authenticity.

Another troubling aspect is the character known as “The Rat,” gamely played by Taryn Reneau in a patterned body stocking and sunglasses with large X-marks across the lenses. The visual of a dead rat is first mentioned as Pryor describes being raped as a young child. The Rat pops up at regular intervals to goad Pryor on to make dangerous choices (not unlike the “Bad Idea Bears” in “Avenue Q”), but you're still left wondering why.

Jackson does a very credible take on playing Pryor, aided no doubt by his amazing physical resemblance. But the material Jackson created with Gailes is full of stumbling blocks — particularly in the second act when their theatrically fragmented approach to Pryor's life plays out more like a series of scenes drawn from a TV movie-of-the-week about domestic and drug abuse.

Gailes and Jackson in particular drop the ball at dramatizing Pryor's life once he finds his true comedic and confessional voice. They also don't know how to handle Pryor's comeback after his shocking self-immolation that nearly killed him in 1980. The years of Pryor rebuilding his life and career (including unlikely forays into family-friendly material like the film “The Toy” and “Superman III” or his Saturday morning kid's show “Pryor's Place”) are simply omitted from the show. And the conclusion to “Unspeakable,” where Pryor has a discussion with God, comes off as pat and preposterous.

If “Unspeakable” is at sea with its structure and material, at least the members of its hardworking acting ensemble do all they can with the dialogue they're given. They also get quite a workout as they rotate through multiple roles, ranging from Pryor's many wives to drug fiends who will do anything for a fix.

As Pryor's grandmother, whom he calls “Mama,” the award-winning actress E. Faye Butler lends a certain gravitas to the whole proceeding. But her talents are wasted here.

Ultimately, “Unspeakable” fails on two crucial levels. It never captures the comic genius that was Pryor. And it struggles to convey the complexity of the horrors inflicted on him — and by him.

Perhaps, though, anyone dispirited by “Unspeakable” will instead turn to footage featuring the real Pryor. Going to the source would be far more rewarding than seeing his life re-imagined by others.

Mama (E. Faye Butler) consoles her grandson, Richard Pryor (James Murray Jackson Jr.), in "Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia" at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in Chicago. Courtesy of Justin Barbin Photography
James Murray Jackson Jr. stars as the late comedian Richard Pryor in "Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia" at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in Chicago. Courtesy of Justin Barbin Photography

“Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia”

★ ½

<b>Location:</b> Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or <a href=""></a>

<b>Showtimes:</b> 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Oct. 25

<b>Running time:</b> Two hours 20 minutes, including intermission

<b>Tickets:</b> $35-$79

<b>Parking:</b> Area pay lots and limited metered street parking

<b>Rating:</b> For adults only; lots of profanity, drug use and sexually frank dialogue

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