Harry and his friends spend every evening in rehab watching “Cheers” reruns. At first, the confounding ritual seems like it might trigger painful memories or stir the desire to duck out for a quick shot or two. But in “When Harry Met Rehab,” a straightforward but charming play now in its world premiere at the Greenhouse Theater Center, this tradition serves as a reminder that strangers often serve as the best friends, particularly in times of trouble, and that camaraderie among addicts extends well beyond the bottom of the glass.
Harry himself is no stranger to shouting into the ether hoping someone is listening. Loosely based on the life of former ESPN 1000 radio host and personality Harry Teinowitz, the show opens on Harry (Dan Butler, best known as Bulldog on the “Cheers”-adjacent sitcom “Frasier”), sports reporter and owner of many Chicago team windbreakers, recounting the story of receiving a DUI on the way back from a Blackhawks game. Harry is a bit of a local celebrity, so thousands of Chicago sports fans instantly learn about his arrest and his mugshot runs in the newspaper for four days. The bad press spurs the station to issue an ultimatum to Harry: Obtain sobriety or relinquish your job.
Determined to maintain his position of sports authority and patch relations with his wife and two children, Harry arrives at rehab and is greeted by a cast of characters that would fit well into a sitcom-style mold. Leading the gang of misfits is Barb (“Little House on the Prairie” alum Melissa Gilbert), a therapist who rocks baggy overalls, performs magic tricks as drinking metaphors and brightens dour sessions with “fun facts” — like how 10 percent of drinkers consume 50 percent of the booze.
Vince (the excellent Chiké Johnson) is a straight-talking family man and rehab veteran who takes Harry under his wing. The two room together along with Isaiah (Keith D. Gallagher), a former pharmacist with a loose prescription pad, and George (Jonathan Moises Olivares), a disengaged twentysomething who has been estranged from his mother for 17 months. Rounding out the crew is the acerbic five-time divorcee Andrea (Elizabeth Laidlaw).
There’s nothing particularly novel about these personas, but Teinowitz and co-writer Spike Manton wisely steer towards shorter scenes — most are only a few minutes — to weave a broader narrative. Not long after Harry is struggling to grasp the seriousness of an assignment from Barb to write a letter to his liver, a new scene finds him showing up to a group session with a packed notebook. Forward momentum is embedded in the script, leaving little time to dwell on any particular cliché and maintaining a focus on character development rather than meta commentary on therapy itself.
Director Jackson Gay (of interactive theater company New Neighborhood) further disambiguates the narrative by introducing real-world stories. While Harry occasionally breaks the fourth wall in character, the others do so only to read letters from other addicts, whose photos are projected onto the wall of the sparse set (a couch, a few chairs and some Chicago sports memorabilia). These moments introduce the twisted logic many addicts share — one woman sets arbitrary rules for her drinking, such as no booze before 6 p.m., to emulate the feeling of being in control. These vignettes provide an avenue to compose the multifaceted narrative of an addict, even if the characters in “When Harry Met Rehab” only hit a note or two.
Because scenes are short, the most powerful elements of the show are those that make repeat appearances. At one point, Harry arrives at a group session eager to share a drawing and letter he had received from his daughter, only to learn, in real time as he reads aloud, that the hurt he inflicted runs deeper than he realized. This drawing runs through a handful of scenes as a physical reminder of Harry’s emotional pain, and the conceit is never given enough time to wear on its effectiveness.
The svelte nature of the scenes also serves the humor, of which there is plenty. Funny lines like the one comparing part of rehab to receiving a “colonoscopy in the middle of a food court” hit hard because they arrive in otherwise mundane or emotionally fraught scenes. After Isaiah offers poorly timed fist bumps of solidarity, his revelation of a secret plays less like a Very Special Episode of a sitcom, one in which we must all feel Deep Concern, and more like one of the many moments in a friendship that asks for empathy. Like “Cheers,” the humor is as much about the line itself as the timing and pacing of the line, suggesting a grasp on how to compose a comedic play on a dark subject that doesn’t feel manic-depressive.
The simple refrain echoing throughout the play is “I’ll keep coming back” — whether directly expressed during the testimonials or in so many words by Barb and the other recovering addicts. In “When Harry Met Rehab,” one’s ability to change is only as strong as one’s willingness to show up to a room full of strangers until everybody knows your name.