Why Rainn Wilson almost didn't take role in Steppenwolf's 'The Doppelganger'

 
 
Updated 4/4/2018 12:30 PM
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  • Rainn Wilson rehearses for the world premiere of Matthew-Lee Erlbach's "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

    Rainn Wilson rehearses for the world premiere of Matthew-Lee Erlbach's "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Courtesy of Joel Moorman/Steppenwolf Theatre

Last year, Steppenwolf Theatre Company made a pie-in-the-sky offer to Hollywood actor Rainn Wilson to star in "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)." The world-premiere comedy by Matthew-Lee Erlbach had lost originally cast Steppenwolf ensemble member Gary Cole, so the playwright was encouraged to name other actors as dream casting.

At the top of the list was Wilson, best known for starring as quirky Dwight Schrute in the hit NBC TV series "The Office." His first reaction wasn't encouraging.

"No way," Wilson said. "I'm not going to Chicago in the winter to rehearse a play and be away from my family."

Yet "The Doppelgänger" script stuck with Wilson, a Seattle native who spent his final two years of high school at New Trier in Winnetka. So he agreed. The play starts previews Thursday, April 5.

"Every time I read it I just got more turned on by it. It's really bold," Wilson said. "The closest thing I could compare it to is Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros.' It's a total slapstick farce that is a dark, brilliant political commentary at the same time."

"It has to be a well-oiled machine," Rainn Wilson says of Steppenwolf Theatre's "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)."
"It has to be a well-oiled machine," Rainn Wilson says of Steppenwolf Theatre's "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)." - Courtesy of Joel Moorman/Steppenwolf Theatre

Like Wilson, Erlbach has local connections. He grew up in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood and credits his schooling at both Niles West High School in Skokie and The Second City Training Center for steering him toward a career in performing and writing. Erlbach's credits include writing for Showtime's "Masters of Sex" and his off-Broadway play "Handbook for an American Revolution."

"The Doppelgänger" is set in contemporary Africa and stars Wilson in dual roles. One is Thomas, a wealthy British businessman who suffers an untimely accident. The other is an American tourist named Jimmy, whose resemblance to Thomas thrusts him into a critical copper mining deal.

"I wanted to explore labor rights and the exploitation of indigenous people," Erlbach said. "The stakes are very desperate, and so in that sense I didn't feel like I was writing a farce. It felt like I was writing a very funny tragedy."

Playwright and actor Matthew-Lee Erlbach works with the cast in rehearsals for his world-premiere play "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Playwright and actor Matthew-Lee Erlbach works with the cast in rehearsals for his world-premiere play "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. - Courtesy of Joel Moorman/Steppenwolf Theatre

Yet both Erlbach and Wilson insist that "The Doppelgänger" is full of laughs.

"I guarantee we will win the award for most fart and sex jokes of any play in Chicago this season -- and also for some of the most searing political commentary," Wilson said. "I loved that challenge, and it's risky. It may not work, but I like that. I would never have done this play if it was just a farce set in a summer home."

Wilson is no stranger to live theater with New York and California stage credits. Yet he admits that "The Doppelgänger" director Tina Landau has been putting him and the rest of the ensemble through their paces in exhausting and detailed rehearsals.

Playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach, director Tina Landau and actor Rainn Wilson rehearse for "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)." Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago is presenting the world premiere of Erlbach's comedy that touches on the abuses of global capitalism.
Playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach, director Tina Landau and actor Rainn Wilson rehearse for "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)." Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago is presenting the world premiere of Erlbach's comedy that touches on the abuses of global capitalism. - Courtesy of Joel Moorman/Steppenwolf Theatre

"It has to be a well-oiled machine," Wilson said. "When you've got 10 people onstage and you're throwing focus to someone who's got the kicker line, or the perfect pratfall or the great slow burn pause and then someone turns their head at the wrong time, it can throw the whole thing off and you'll lose the laugh."

Both Wilson and Erlbach remember being in awe of Steppenwolf when they were teenagers, so they're honored to be making their company debut together.

"Not only is (Wilson) just like the most inventive comedian you could ever want in a play like this, he's also a fantastic actor," Erlbach said. "And also he's socially and politically aware and spiritually in touch. That's really important to me that someone is coming from that place."

• • •

"The Doppelgänger (an international farce)"

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: Various times from Thursday, April 5, through May 27; Eric Slater performs Rainn Wilson's roles at 7:30 p.m. April 22, 24 and May 6, and for shows on May 20 and 22

Tickets: $20-$109

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