The laughs just keep on coming in Writers, Second City pitch-perfect 'Parody'

 
 
Posted5/7/2016 7:00 AM
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  • George (John Hoogenakker) and Martha (Karen Janes Woditsch) reflect on their relationship in Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen's theatrical sendup "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody."

    George (John Hoogenakker) and Martha (Karen Janes Woditsch) reflect on their relationship in Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen's theatrical sendup "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Sean Fortunato's Stage Manager does what narrators do best: provide exposition while Blanche DuBois (Jennifer Engstrom) lingers in the background in Writers Theatre's "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody," in a co-production with The Second City.

    Sean Fortunato's Stage Manager does what narrators do best: provide exposition while Blanche DuBois (Jennifer Engstrom) lingers in the background in Writers Theatre's "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody," in a co-production with The Second City. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Looking for a good time? Call Writers Theatre in Glencoe and reserve a ticket to "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody," the wonderfully irreverent comedy with the unwieldy title.

I can't remember a show that delivered as many laughs as consistently as this combination sendup and celebration of four theatrical masterworks (with references to about a dozen more) produced in cooperation with The Second City. Writers' world premiere -- which inaugurates the black box Gillian Theatre in the company's new North Shore complex -- embodies the best of both collaborators: First-rate stagecraft and a first-tier acting ensemble from Writers; sly, topical humor and breakneck pacing from Second City.

Created by Second City veterans Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen, this theatrical mashup -- with its rapid-fire barrage of theater references, appeals to theater aficionados and novices alike. Summarizing plots and themes with a few concise quips, writer Sniffen reduced to their essentials Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." The result is a parody with plot threads even a casual theatergoer can easily follow.

Co-directed by Writers artistic director Michael Halberstam and former associate artistic director Stuart Carden, this relentlessly funny show unfolds over 63 minutes in a quick setup, quick payoff style.

The action takes place in a slightly shabby section of New Orleans. The set -- like the play -- is a mashup. Designed by Linda Buchanan, it pairs French Quarter architecture with the frayed interior found in a rundown Louisiana plantation. Strings of multicolored lights from designer Jesse Klug provide a festive counterpoint.

The action begins with an introduction by Wilder's Stage Manager who insists "Our Town" exists "mostly to show high school students they're not immortal." Played with reassuring charm by Sean Fortunato, he functions to provide exposition and character insight, far easier, he quips, than developing characters through dialogue.

Blanche (Jennifer Engstrom) and Stanley (Michael Perez) fight off some sexual tension in Writers Theatre's terrific world premiere "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody," produced in collaboration with The Second City.
Blanche (Jennifer Engstrom) and Stanley (Michael Perez) fight off some sexual tension in Writers Theatre's terrific world premiere "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody," produced in collaboration with The Second City. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Enter Blanche DuBois (Jennifer Engstrom, a terrific actress with a masterful vocal command), Williams' unhinged, hypersexualized Southern belle who has returned from a sanitarium to the home of her brutish brother-in-law -- the perpetually sweaty, ever studly Stanley Kowalski (Michael Perez, the ideal combination of brains and brawn). They're joined by Miller's perpetually depressed Willy Loman (the deliciously deadpan Marc Grapey), who's in New Orleans to attend a sales seminar, which concluded a week earlier. Last to arrive are Albee's famously combative, perpetually drunk duo: middling college professor George (John Hoogenakker, a model of detached cynicism) and his caustic wife, Martha (a spot-on performance by Karen Janes Woditsch), who've come to visit their "son."

Willy Loman (Marc Grapey) finally makes a sale to Jennifer Engstrom's Blanche DuBois in the Writers Theatre and Second City theatrical mashup "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody."
Willy Loman (Marc Grapey) finally makes a sale to Jennifer Engstrom's Blanche DuBois in the Writers Theatre and Second City theatrical mashup "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

To reveal what transpires between this stellar sextet would spoil the fun of this "Parody," which memorably tips its hat to Anton Chekhov, Eugene O'Neill, David Mamet and Samuel Beckett. (Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" is referenced in an especially clever way). For the record, the play's coda -- which recalls a 1980s film beloved by Gen X'ers -- deviates a bit from the conceit. But the reference works so well, it doesn't matter.

As I said, "Parody" doesn't make demands of its audience, who can comprehend the jokes without having intimate knowledge of the plays. Part of the reason has to do with how firmly these works are embedded in popular culture.

But "Parody" does demand a great deal from its actors, some of the Chicago area's finest, whose performances reflect not just their expertise but their keen understanding of these characters. Any one of these actors in a traditional production of any one of these plays would deliver a noteworthy performance.

Lucky for us, those noteworthy performances come in a "Parody."

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