Manic mayhemtakes over thestage of theoft-sophisticatedSteppenwolf Theatre with the world premiere ofMatthew-LeeErlbach’s “The Doppelgänger(an international farce),” a frenetically funny satireabout the deranged world order.
Rainn Wilson, most famously known as DwightSchruteon “The Office,” delivers a bravura performance overseeing the theatrical bedlam, with a large cast of characters who mostly range from quirky to quirkier, and more importantly, evil to evil-er.
Wilsonplays two characters, as the title suggests. The first is ThomasIrdley, a business tycoon who has discovered priceless copper deposits in a war-torn Central African Republic, and, with a mindset that has never escaped old-fashioned colonialism, he plans to mine himself a mint with it. He resists the entreaties of his local, clever and amazingly resourceful maid Rosie(Celeste M. Cooper),who has a plan shepushes on Thomas called“The People’s Provision”to ensure the copper mine benefits the local community.“What’s next,”he scoffs,“profit-sharing?”
TheDoppelgänger (an international farce) ★★★ When:ThroughMay 27 Where: SteppenwolfTheatre,1650N.Halsted Tickets: $20– $114 Info: steppenwolf.org Run time: 2hoursand30minutes withoneintermission
The second character Wilson embodiesshows up unexpectedly.His name is Jimmy, and he’sThomas’ twin-like “doppelgänger.” Jimmy is akindergarten teacherfrom Quincy, Illinois, vacationing his way through Africa. And thusWilson switches out his British accent fora broad American one, hispompousupper-crustproprietyforthe bearing of a crass tourist, andhis fencing outfitfor a pair ofjean shorts and colorful top undoubtedly purchased at a local gift shop.
And before we know it,Thomas mistakes animal tranquilizers for his blood pressure medication and he’s outcold, which leads the quick-thinking Rosie to convince Jimmy to pretend to be Thomas so that the People’s Provision has a shot.
It’s at this point — not far in at all — that the plot goes from a pleasant comic pace to one befitting an Indy 500. This is breathless stuff, carefully choreographed by director Tina Landau on Todd Rosenthal’s door-heavy set.
The characters arrive: the American general (MichaelAccardo) ready to lubricate the deal with arms sales; the British diplomat (Audrey Francis) with irritable bowel syndrome; the priapic Saudi prince (AndyNagraj) and his Brazilian money-laundering seductress (Karen Rodriguez).
Breathe. We’re about halfway through.
There’s theAsian-American entrepreneur from Silicon Valley (Whit K. Lee) who needs the copper for his plan to power the world with green energy; thedeposed African dictator (James Vincent Meredith)with plans to re-assume power,and his wife (OraJones), who disagrees with everything her husband says. Oh, and Thomas’ wife (Sandra Marquez), who returns towards the end to add to the comic confusion.
They mustmostlybesufficiently clueless to fail to realize their host has been replaced, and also ridiculously greedy enough to plan the looting of a nation’s natural resources with nary a nod to the natives.And they sure fit the bill.They plan their dastardly deeds in the first act, and in thesecond act, the doors get put to good use with an array ofsexual shenanigansand backstabbing efforts to selfishly grasp more of the profits.
The performances are broad and superb. Deserving particular mention, in addition to the tireless Wilson: Rodriguez’s over-the-top sexual tackiness(after this and the play “Breach,”she is rapidly becoming an essential comic Chicago actress); Francis’ physical bathroom humor, and Cooper, whose earnest orchestrationsas the maid Rosie giveus a sense (for a time at least) that there just may be a moral center lurking underneathallthemalevolence.
And let’s not forget DanPlehal, who shows a whole lot of nimbleness as Wilson’s unconscious body double, appropriately covered in a fencing mask.
Landau proves pretty terrific atestablishing and maintaining the exaggerated playing style, andmanaging all the chaos and confusion; the physical humor has impressive precision. But here’s the problem. Turmoilcan satisfy comically for a while, as can a whole lot of very corny humor (including a too-long “Who’s on First” shtick) and plenty of purposefully offensive stereotyping taken to extremes (the Saudi prince is treated to a particularly significant amount of humiliation). But it gets exhausting, particularly at two-and-a-half hours. Erlbachjust isn’t very creativein hischoice of characters, and for a show with enough plot to fill a cavernous copper mine, surprises are few. The playwrighthas taken on a set offigureswho are little more than bull’s eyes awaiting target practice.
Although it is far better crafted and more polished than “Plantation,” LookingglassTheatre’s satirical farce about racial reparations, “The Doppelgänger”doesn’t hit nearly as close to home. We are always laughing at these absurd people, and never really laughing at ourselves.
But at least we are laughing, often.
Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.