Chicago Theater Review: THE DOPPELGÄNGER (AN INTERNATIONAL FARCE) (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 16, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Can a forced farce make a theater audience howl with laughter, never realizing until the very end that the joke is on them? That’s almost a rhetorical question with Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere. It’s a clumsy/clever comedy whose final scene, arriving after two hours of relentless burlesque, attacks the theater’s cacklers and gigglers for not taking it seriously.

Oddly (but not improbably in our brave new world of masochistic Trumpery), on opening night this slap in the crowd’s collective face was followed by a standing ovation. It triggers a question often asked in 2018: How low can we go?

Subversively stupid and contagiously misanthropic, The Doppelgänger (an international farce) — perpetrated by Chicagoland native Matthew-Lee Erlbach and directed by Tina Landau like a hostage situation — sets a trap for both characters and patrons. It purports to depict a power summit of cosmopolitan movers and shakers to determine the financing, ownership, operations and profiteering of a vastly lucrative copper mine. The African locale is set designer Todd Rosenthal’s sumptuously appointed and flagrantly taxidermic drawing room in a French colonial estate in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. We’re in the mansion of Thomas Irdley (daffy Rainn Wilson of The Office fame), a British metal mogul and his officious wife Theresa (Sandra Marquez).

The collective intent is ugly indeed for this mishmash of takers and haters: a Brazilian money launderer and gold-digger (Karen Rodriguez); a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (Whit K. Lee); a bisexual Arab prince and investor (Andy Nagraj); a reactionary American general (Michael Accardo); a former genocidal strongman hoping for a dictatorial comeback (James Vincent Meredith); his idealistic, pacifist-minded spouse (Ora Jones); and the neurasthenic British ambassadress who wants to bring back the Empire (Audrey Francis). They hope to pull off a hostile coup, privatize the copper mine, monetize its recently discovered underground trove, slash to zero the corporate tax rate, and proceed to get filthy rich until the mine is empty.

All eight of Erlbach’s human hyenas are blatant stereotypes of unreconstructed capitalist overreach, narcissistic self-entitlement, sociopathic selfishness, and vintage sitcom personality quirks. (By now artificial intelligence must have devised a cliché-spouting software program to automatically generate such shallow simulations.)

But, before this confab of plutocratic/predatory V.I.P.s can begin, Thomas suddenly expires in a characteristically bone-headed way. (Never confuse blood pressure medicine with a zebra tranquilizer.)

Fortuitously and contrivedly, Jimmy Peterson (also Wilson), Thomas’s exact double (hence the title) and a doofus American kindergarten teacher from Quincy, Illinois, is visiting the compound. He’s persuaded by a “native” maid named Rosie Guerekoyame (dynamic Celeste Cooper) — who wants the mine to serve the people whose sweat and toil extrude the copper — to substitute for the missing CEO. As innocent of guile as Dostoevsky’s “Fool of God,” our bumbling but willing Jimmy will negotiate a deal not founded on neo-colonial oppression, exploitation and racism.

Rosie wants “Thomas” to insist on fair “training, hiring and wages,” revolutionary reform in a Third World hellhole. But, attempting reverse psychology to shame them from their sins, “Thomas” discovers that these trendy parasites will wage war on all of Africa to get their goodies. “What’s mine is yours” — a line typical of the script’s witless wordplay.

No question, Erlbach’s well-intentioned goal is to expose the venality, dirty dealings, and amoral abandon of Davos-style doers, international opportunists who never met a natural resource in a “shithole country” that they couldn’t milk (and run).

But let’s just set aside the preposterous premise of an exact look-alike pulling off this imposture (a device similar to Larry Shue’s much more successful The Nerd). The problem here is the action that illustrates the indictment: We endure or enjoy door-slamming bedroom antics, flashing for fun, homophobic sexual pursuits, a huge and lengthy “hard on,” misogynistic come-ons, screaming fistfights, necrophiliac corpse humor out of Weekend with Bernie, pratfalls and slapstick, an ear sliced off, and, yes, a literal shitstorm. Stooping to conquer, Erlbach and Landau make ten of Chicago’s finest actors attempt anything for a laff.

By the end the playwright has caught on to how much his circus of a sham travesty — what he calls a “geopolitical quagmire” — has trivialized the inequities it pretends to deplore (much as Lookingglass Theatre’s Plantation! makes light of the issue of racial reparations). Desperately or deliberately, Erlbach resorts to a sobering final tableau: In an instant it confirms, unwittingly or not, every ignorant American prejudice about the knee-jerk violence of Africa’s “retributive justice,” erupting from anywhere and at any age.

No doubt, Rainn Wilson displays deft comic chops and “fish out of water” humor as he depicts both a reluctant hero and a total twit. Backed up by a perfectly cast rogues gallery of grifters and greedsters, he can only wink, leer, mug and clown so much before this mess becomes a theatrical train wreck.

But the worst breach of faith of this too-long (150-minute) pseudo-comedy is to mock the audience for guffawing at an African nation’s desperation. By the end, like these nasty international interlopers, we’re all metaphorically forced to our knees, ripe for execution. A farce is about to eat its own. Trying to have his dramatic cake and eat it too, Erlbach can only starve the beast.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Doppelgänger (an international farce)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted
ends on May 27, 2018
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


Tom April 17, 2018 at 6:40 am

I think I’ll reread Noises Off.

Paul April 17, 2018 at 12:52 pm

Saw the second preview a couple weeks ago and did not enjoy. Hopefully it’s gotten better since then. Farting, erection humor, homophobic comments and sexually aggressive overweight women seem more like something you’d see on a CBS sitcom than on the Steppenwolf stage.

Nikki Smith May 9, 2018 at 5:41 pm

Great review. This farce would be appropriate for an 8th grade graduation party in Iowa.

Helen Boris May 10, 2018 at 10:47 am

A bad attempt at clever British slapstick. Went on too long with forced repetitious gags that stopped working early into Act I — Then it tried to get profound and serious at the end.

Just a mess of a waste of time.

I agree with Tom; Go see Noises Off if you’re up for slapstick-good.

Catherine May 30, 2018 at 3:20 pm

I could not disagree with this reviewer more! My husband and I LOVED this play! We see a fair amount of theater and this is now one of our all-time favorites. More of chuckler/gaffawers, we were laughing out loud at the ridiculous hijinks but also appreciated the social commentary which gave it ballast. The laughs were never aimed at the expense of the suffering Africans — so where this criticism comes from, I have no idea. Far from trivializing the problem, the entire point of the play seems to be to raise the profile of these largely ignored issues and should be commended for its efforts. It IS absurd how Africa is treated, so an (absurd) farce is the perfect vehicle. BRAVO to the playwright and the performers who were uniformly outstanding!

Lin October 17, 2018 at 3:55 pm

Lucky enough to see this at the end of their run. One of the best plays I’ve seen at Steppenwolf. Acting, direction, and writing all superb. The difficulty of doing a political farce is not lost on any serious theatre goer–I was blown away by it. We don’t discuss political conflict and colonialism in Africa nearly enough. And to do so with such rich depth in a seemingly broad farce? Bravo. Hope it has a long life.

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