Chicago Theater Review: THE NORTH PLAN (Theater Wit in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on March 2, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The North Plan at Theater Wit is either a farce with dark political conspiracy overtones or a political conspiracy drama played heavily for farce. Playwright Jason Wells may intend to say serious things about the political state of the nation, but if the audience doesn’t take his play seriously, it’s his own fault. The convergence of two theatre styles is no doubt ambitious, but he’s made his show too funny to convince viewers they are witnessing any disturbing commentary about our current political scene.

Roughly set in the present, The North Plan takes place in two rooms of a police station in a tiny rural Missouri town. In the first act, we meet a foul-mouthed trailer trash lady named Tanya, confined to a cage in the police station waiting transfer to the county facility on a charge of DUI. In the cage next to her is a Carlton, a hyper personality who claims to be a mid-level bureaucrat in the State Department in possession of an enemies list that can disrupt a group taking over the United States government.

In bits and pieces, the audience learns that a force is taking over the government, arresting artists, journalists and similar resisters, setting up concentration camps, and instituting curfews and checkpoints. According to Carlton, they are following the North Plan, named for Oliver North (remember him?), hatched in the 1980’s. At least I think that’s the case. The point whizzed by me early in the show when I wasn’t sure what I needed to know to follow the erratic narrative.

In the second act, the action moves to the front office in the police station where a pair of sinister agents from Washington are on the scene to pry the enemies list from Carlton by any means necessary. There is a Manchurian Candidate-like menacing flavor about the agents and the forces they serve. They are a nasty pair, especially Agent Pitman. His colleague, Lee, is more of a stooge injected for comic effect. There are a few moments of torture in the second act and the play ends with half the cast shot dead, but the overall impression remains that The North Plan is a comedy which awkwardly incorporates elements of social commentary.

The playwright is most successful when he follows the basic strictures of farce, especially mistaken identities and highly unlikely confusions of purpose. There are only three entrances and exits in Jack Magaw’s effective set, a very low ration for a farce, but they are used nimbly to get characters on and off stage with split-second timing in the true farce tradition.

Director Kimberly Senior, who is on a roll this season, opts to play the action for laughs, and who can blame her? The playwright gives her little to work with in exploring the political possibilities of the story. We aren’t told how the country got into such a crisis or who the bad guys represent, though they are apparently right wing extremists. Also, Carlton believes that if his enemies list can somehow be delivered to a Houston journalist (with a comical name) the country will be saved, but how this will come to pass eluded me.

The six-member ensemble all show a nifty flair for comedy, led by the inimitable Kate Buddeke as Tanya, a lady who takes vulgarity to impressive heights. Buddeke starts the play with a virtual profanity-laced monologue that establishes her character as one of life’s bottom feeders. She disappears from the action for a bit and then returns in triumph, guns blazing.

Kevin Stark is great as Carlton, a man who may (or may not) hold the key to saving the country with the enemies list embedded in his laptop computer. Carlton’s desperation manages to be funny and intense at the same time, not an easy acting feat. Tom Hickey is outstanding as Pitman, who is both scary and comical. Hickey’s Pitman is the kind of nasty, outwardly bland character who makes an audience nervous every minute he’s on stage. Brian King delivers a low-keyed comic performance as Pitman’s sidekick who doesn’t have a real place in the play.

Lucy Sandy plays Shonda, a young black administrative officer in the police station who initially stays uncommitted amidst the political turbulence brought in by Pitman and Lee but eventually opts for the good guys. Will Zahrn is the crusty salt-of-the-earth police chief who doesn’t appreciate the big city boys from Washington D.C. running roughshod over his small domain.

The North Plan originated in 2010 as part of the Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Repertory of New Work. I don’t know if Wells revised his play significantly since 2010, but what he has now is a weird hybrid of belly-laugh comedy and unsettling “Could it happen here?” political drama. It’s a fascinating device because characters don’t die in a farce and we don’t laugh during plays that attempt serious political commentary. In this case, however, farce trumps any possibility for the commentary to resonate. As such, viewers can deal with the politically-fueled violence as best they can, happy to be entertained by the play’s offbeat visual and verbal humor. The opening night audience received the play as a comedy and that’s surely the way to go.

In addition to Magaw’s set design, Scott Pillsbury designed the lighting, Elizabeth Flauto the costumes, and Rick Sims the sound. Chris Rickett choreographed the convincing fight sequences.

photos by Liz Lauren

The North Plan

Theater Wit in Chicago (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on April 1
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