By Barry Reszel
Dazzling Jeff Award winner Danni Smith and equally gifted Matthew Keffer host an extraordinary cast of mostly invited guests to their stunning, disturbing, sometimes sickening and undeniably wild party as an opener to Bailiwick Chicago Theatre’s 2014-15 season.
This 1920s-set Michael John LaChiusa/George C. Wolfe version of Joseph Moncure March‘s R-rated poem, The Wild Party, is a study of life’s B-listers drowning in bathtub gin, cocaine, partner-swapping and domestic violence.
Mary Poppins it ain’t.
This, mostly from the Baliwick website, offers a perfect summary of plot and characterization:
Manhattan decadence in the 1920s provides the backdrop for this tough musical fable. Queenie (Smith), a vaudeville chorus girl. hosts a titular blowout with her vicious lover Burrs (Keffer), a blackface minstrel. The guests are a vivid collection of the unruly and the undone: Queenie’s conniving rival (Sharriese Hamilton), a cocaine-sniffing bisexual playboy (Ryan Lanning), a washed-up black boxer (Steven Perkins) and his white wife (Khaki Pixley), a black “brother act” (Desmond Gray and Gilbert Domally) a diva of indeterminate age and infinite life experience (Danielle Brothers), the fresh-off-the-farm ingénue whose naïveté quickly evaporates (Molly Coleman), a lesbian actress (Christina Hall) and her comatose girlfriend (Sasha Smith), two wanna-be Broadway producers (Jason Grimm and Jason Richards) and the bargain-basement heartthrob who catches Queenie’s roving eye (Patrick Falcon). The jazz- and gin-soaked party rages to a mounting sense of threat as artifice and illusion are stripped away. When midnight debauchery leads to tragedy at dawn, the high-flying characters land with a sobering thud, reminding us that no party lasts forever.”
Brilliant Benda Didier directs and choreographs with excitement and precision. Sparkling, memorable performances ought to catapult at least Smith, Keffer, Hamilton, Lanning and Falcon to leading roles on larger Chicago stages, if they desire.
This captivating production is presented on an appropriately-sized postage-stamp-of-a-stage at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theatre, an intimate venue that puts patrons in the party’s living room entryway, peering in.
What they see is gritty, not pretty. But like the cause of oh-so-many gapers’ delays on the Kennedy, Stevenson and Dan Ryan, it’s a riveting vision from which it’s nearly impossible to look away.
Bailiwick Artistic Director Lili-Anne Brown opines after exchanging email with LaChiusa that it’s because the audience identifies with the misbehaving caricatures onstage. “No one likes to see him/herself in bald, ugly light,” she writes. “But if they do identify, however uncomfortable it may be, there is a chance to escape your troubled life—if you can remove your masks of intolerance, self-loathing, self-pity, self-indulgence, self-abuse, etc.”
Perhaps there is a, “There, but for the grace of God go I,” takeaway from this production. But even more pronounced is a feeling that a truly gifted ensemble of triple threats, led by a top-notch director, can wrap its individual and collective talents around despicable characters doing deplorable things accompanied by a thin plot with a largely forgettable songbook and still make theatrical magic.
This Wild Party is uncomfortable, messy, riveting, genius.
“The Wild Party” will play through Nov. 1 at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago. Curtain Times: Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm & 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets ($40, $30 for groups of 10 or more) are available online at www.victorygardens.org, by calling (773) 871-3000 or in-person at the Victory Gardens Box Office.