Chicago Theater Review: BRILLIANT ADVENTURES (Steep Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 10, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

TIME TRAVEL AS URBAN RENEWAL

[Editor’s note: There are some minor spoilers used in Mr. Bommer’s synopsis.]

U.K. playwright Alistair McDowell likes to break the rules to reach a crowd. An intriguing U.S. premiere by Steep Theatre Company, his sardonically titled Brilliant Adventures exposes McDowall’s iconoclastic ways: It’s bracingly matter-of-fact about a weird world of hardcore poverty (the setting is Middlesborough, England’s least desirable town in the “Wild West” north) and family dysfunction (dad’s a druggie kept on a leash-and-collar like a pet). At the core of this dark comedy, strangely sad with Pinter-like menace but ultimately uplifting, is a time machine in a cardboard box: It’s the one hope for change in a bleak Darwinian dead end.

Ty Olwin, Peter Moore (l to r) in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

Fiercely focused, director Robin Witt drives home the desperation baked into confrontations that pass for scenes. Stark survival is the status quo: A reclusive genius who combines Will Hunting (Good Will Hunting) with Raymond Babbitt (Rain Man), Luke (Curtis Edward Jackson) has just moved his stuff into a tiny flat in an even worse part of town than the rest of “’Boro.” But this shy stutterer who just wants to play Tetris can’t get away from his older, drug-dealing brother Rob (Ryan McBride) who storms in with their father (Will Kinnear in a character simply called “Man”), crawling on all fours canine-style.

Ryan McBride, Ty Olwin (l to r) in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

Rancid with tough love, Rob has taken more care of Luke than the brilliant and inconveniently decent boy can abide: His attempt to get the idiot savant a job with N.A.S.A. fails like everything else in this accursed burg. On a table sits a goldfish bowl (its inhabitant named Bruce) that represents the one sweet memory Rob has of his mute dad. Finally, pleading for help and a home is their “wanker” buddy Greg (Brandon Rivera): Like everyone in this dump, this unemployable vagrant will do anything for a pound note.

Curtis Edward Jackson in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre.

Into their mediocre midst, introduced by reckless Rob, is an older gangster thug from powerful London. Ben (Peter Moore), the proverbial bad-apple outsider, intends to buy this town (through drugs, prostitution and booze) and own these lost souls. Ben’s predatory interest centers on the crude time machine that Luke has parked in a corner and, because Luke respects the time-space continuum, wants no one to use. Of course, that only makes Ben covet the money-maker all the more.

Peter Moore, Brandon Rivera (l to r) in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

It seems like nothing good can come of this stranger danger, with ruthlessly opportunistic Ben willing to extract teeth, then evict the lads to get Luke’s “wayback” machine. But, through some crack-brained action, unexpected heroics and the arrival of a semi-stranger (Ty Olwin), McDowall pulls off what in this slum passes for a happy ending. The future saves the present, then (for some) the present seeks safety in the past. (You had to be there.)

Curtis Edward Jackson, Ryan McBride, Brandon Rivera (l to r) in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

It’s no piece of cake to credit the plot machinery that pulls off this minor miracle. But it’s easy enough to root for Luke’s attempt to stay straight in a world gone crooked. McDowall’s losers are sympathetic souls caught in the strangely courageous act of just getting by.

Curtis Edward Jackson, Peter Moore (l to r) in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

Never succumbing to their North Country accents, Witt’s sextet are solidly grounded in this dead-end neighborhood. McDowall’s weird fusion of comic-book hijinks and dirt-poor squalor works as you watch it (though less so when you look back). Love never seemed so conditional–but the hope and warmth missing here is just the indictment of Middlesborough that McDowall intends.

Curtis Edward Jackson, Brandon Rivera (l to r) in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre.

photos by Brandon Wardell

Curtis Edward Jackson in Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

Brilliant Adventures
Steep Theatre Company
Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn
Thurs – Sat at 8; select Sun at 3
ends on August 15, 2015
EXTENDED to August 29, 2015
for tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.steeptheatre.com

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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