Rainn Wilson delights in Steppenwolf's quip-filled 'The Doppelganger'
"The Doppelgänger (an international farce)" -- ★ ★ ★
For playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach, farce is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
The medicine, he explains in a Steppenwolf Theatre video, is righteous outrage over indigenous people in impoverished yet mineral-rich nations exploited by capitalists-without-conscience. Erlbach administers a generous dose in his nearly great comedy "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf.
Directed by ensemble member Tina Landau and starring the superb Rainn Wilson, "The Doppelgänger" is an acerbic sociopolitical satire wrapped inside a silly sex farce or, as Erlbach describes it, a pig in a blanket.
Quick-paced and quip-filled, the play incorporates mistaken identity, outrageous situations and slapstick comedy, which Erlbach pairs with a stinging critique of government officials and corporate leaders who profit from the labor of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Erlbach exploits farce conventions and social criticism so thoroughly that "The Doppelgänger" loops back around to tragedy, made explicit in the play's shocking final moment.
The time is the present. The place is a French colonial mansion in Bangui, the war-torn capital of the Central African Republic. It's the home of Thomas Irdley (Wilson, best known for playing Dwight Schrute on NBC's "The Office"), a British would be robber-baron, and his wife, Theresa (Sandra Marquez).
Eager to re-open his copper mine presumably shuttered during a pesky civil war, Thomas has invited potential partners to his estate for the weekend. Housekeeper and workers' rights activist Rosie (an impassioned Celeste M. Cooper) sees the mini-summit as an opportunity to ensure fair treatment for her fellow Central African Republic natives. Although Thomas is disinclined, she urges him to use his position to secure jobs and living wages for local mineworkers.
Unfortunately, Thomas mistakes zebra tranquilizer for his blood pressure meds and passes out before his guests arrive. Fortunately, Jimmy (the titular doppelgänger played by Wilson with "aw shucks" geniality), a vacationing Kindergarten teacher from Quincy, Illinois and a dead ringer for Thomas, shows up.
"Help me fix what is broken," pleads Rosie, who persuades do-gooder Jimmy to stand in for the disposed mogul and advance her efforts on behalf of workers.
Soon after, a rogues' gallery of greedy moneymen and women, self-interested diplomats and disgraced politicos arrive. There's British official Beatrix Geddes-Renwick (a droll Audrey Francis); American Gen. Stanley Harcourt (Michael Accardo); Amir Abdullah (Andy Nagraj), a randy Saudi Arabian prince; his Brazilian money launderer girlfriend Marina (Karen Rodriguez); tech wunderkind Wen Xiaoping (Whit K. Lee), who seeks cheap copper and low corporate taxes to produce his earth-friendly battery; and the silent Beau D'oublé (Dan Plehal). Last to arrive are Michel Masaragba (James Vincent Meredith) and his wife, Lolade (Ora Jones). He's an ousted military dictator eager to regain power; she's a progressive determined to shift her country from aid-based to trade-based.
When they're not devising "Wag the Dog"-inspired schemes to divide and economically conquer the CAR, the assorted power brokers pursue their illicit amorous interests and plot double-crosses. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Rosie struggle to hide the unconscious Thomas, who turns up at inopportune times.
Erlbach's of-the-moment satire is uncomfortably incisive and his writing is funny (the homage to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's classic "Who's on First" is spot-on). The visual gags are sufficiently wacky, although the one about excrement hitting the fan left me cold. And while "The Doppelgänger" delivers laughs, it could benefit from streamlining its plot and characters.
The action unfolds on Todd Rosenthal's grand, two-story set, which includes farce's requisite doors and a staircase with a lift that accommodates Meredith's incapacitated strongman.
The performances are delightfully broad. Landau, who has a flair for physical comedy, sets a breakneck pace, one her first-rate cast ably maintains. That's especially true of New Trier High School graduate Wilson (a quick-change master) and Cooper. Both are indefatigable. In the amoral world of the play, Cooper makes a convincing moral center. Her motives are pure, which makes her despair all the more wrenching.
But it's Wilson -- a charismatic actor with impeccable timing -- who dominates "The Doppelgänger." He delivers a terrific performance in a promising play whose central question -- whether people can put the public good above their private interests -- remains relevant.
• • •
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through May 27. Also 2 p.m. May 2, 9 and 16, and 1:30 p.m. May 20. No shows May 12. No shows at 3 p.m. May 20 and 7:30 p.m. May 27.
Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: $12 in the garage adjacent to the theater. Limited street parking available.
Rating: For adults; contains mature subject matter, nudity and adult language