‘DANNY CASOLARO DIED FOR YOU ’ HIGHLY RECOMMENDED When: Through Dec. 21 Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Tickets: $39-$52 Info: (773) 281-8463; http://www.timelinetheatre .com Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
If “Danny Casolaro Died for You” were just a crackling, jet-propelled, paranoia-laced international conspiracy drama (based in fact), it would be more than enough to raise the hackles on your neck and put a chill in your heart.
But Dominic Orlando’s play, now in a rip-roaring, grit-your-teeth production at TimeLine Theatre, is much more than that. It is the tale of two cousins who are as close as brothers. It is a meditation on success in America, and what drives people far past the breaking point. It is about the dirty, chaotic intersection of politicians, government officials and contractors with the global trade in cash, drugs and weapons, as organized crime and the media dance around the periphery. And it even delivers an intriguing homage to Ernest Hemingway.
On top of all that, the play has been brought to high-intensity life by director Nick Bowling who has assembled a sensational cast, set his actors’ metronomes at the speed of light, and confirmed his status as one of the city’s most galvanic directors. (Bowling even sees to it that the scent of garlic wafts through the air, but that’s just an added bonus.) It will come as no surprise to anyone who sees this production that Orlando’s play is slated to become a film. But if I were you I wouldn’t miss the stage version for anything. It is electrifying.
So just who was Joseph Daniel (“Danny”) Casolaro? He was a freelance writer and adventurer whose death in 1991, at the age of 44, was ruled a suicide by the medical examiner, though his real-life cousin, Orlando, and others, believe he was murdered because he knew far too much about a case that unspooled in the 1980s.
At its core, this case — so complex and multifaceted in its chicanery and criminality that Casolaro dubbed it “The Octopus” — involved a software manufacturer who accused the U.S. Justice Department of stealing and rejiggering his work for nefarious purposes. But this turns out to be just one dark twist on a road connected to the Iran-Contra scandal, to charges about Iran deliberately holding back American hostages to help Ronald Reagan win the 1980 presidential election, to the retrofitting of a bank that enabled U.S. intelligence agencies to fund the Nicaraguan contras, and more.
Orlando ‘s play (with a program note that makes it clear this is not a hardcore documentary), captures the gallery of rogues and victims with whom Danny conducted interviews during the many months of investigative work he did before his death.
Serving as Orlando’s alter ego is Thomas Vacarro (a searing turn by Demetrios Troy), a hungrily aspiring Hollywood screenwriter whose sense of guilt about his cousin’s death is connected to the fact that he smelled his own good fortune in the story Danny uncovered. Both men are second generation Italian immigrants (with Thomas’ dad running a New York pizzeria, while Danny’, a doctor, left him with money now mostly gone). And along with competitiveness, there is an affection and loyalty between the two that is palpable.
Danny (Kyle Hatley, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the photo of the real man, and does a fine job of suggesting his escalating panic), initially meets the software engineer, Bill Hamilton (Jamie Vann in one of several wildly inspired portrayals). He then moves on to Michael Riconsciuto (Mark Richard, brilliant and tragicomic as an emotionally unstable computer nerd); Brian Ehrlich (Dennis William Grimes as a creepy official with high-placed connections), and most haunting of all, Robert Nichols (Philip Earl Johnson, whose portrayal of a master manipulator with ice in his veins has a touch of pure genius.)
Orlando asks: Where does patriotism end and boundless self-interest begin? Have governments lost all legitimacy and become hopelessly mired in the black arts of international corruption and manipulation? And where do we go from here? In short, he has given us a demoralizing thriller with a very deep soul.
NOTE: TimeLine ‘s powerful production of “My Name is Asher Lev” continues through Oct. 18 at the theater’s satellite location, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont.