Manic mayhem takes over the stage of the oft-sophisticated Steppenwolf Theatre with the world premiere of Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s “The  Doppelgänger (an international farce),” a frenetically funny satire about the deranged world order.

Rainn Wilson, most famously known as Dwight Schrute on “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.

Wilson plays two characters, as the title suggests.  The first is Thomas Irdley, 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 she pushes on Thomas called “The People’s Provision” to ensure the copper mine benefits the local community. “What’s next,” he scoffs,“profit-sharing?”

“The Doppelgänger (an international farce)”
★★★
When: Through May 27
Where:  Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $114
Info:  steppenwolf.org
Run time:  2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

The second character Wilson embodies shows up unexpectedly. His name is Jimmy, and he’s Thomas’ twin-like “doppelgänger.” Jimmy is a kindergarten teacher from Quincy, Illinois, vacationing his way through Africa.  And thus Wilson switches out his British accent for a broad American one, his pompous upper-crust propriety for the bearing of a crass tourist, and his fencing outfit for a pair of jean 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 out cold, which leads the quick-thinking Rosie to convince Jimmy to pretend to be Thomas so that the People’s Provision has a shot.

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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 (Michael Accardo) ready to lubricate the deal with arms sales; the British diplomat (Audrey Francis) with irritable bowel syndrome; the priapic Saudi prince (Andy Nagraj) and his Brazilian money-laundering seductress (Karen Rodriguez).

Breathe.  We’re about halfway through.

There’s the Asian-American entrepreneur from Silicon Valley (Whit K. Lee) who needs the copper for his plan to power the world with green energy; the deposed African dictator (James Vincent Meredith) with plans to re-assume power, and his wife (Ora Jones), 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 must mostly be sufficiently 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 the second act, the doors get put to good use with an array of sexual shenanigans and 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 orchestrations as the maid Rosie give us a sense (for a time at least) that there just may be a moral center lurking underneath all the malevolence.

And let’s not forget Dan Plehal, who shows a whole lot of nimbleness as Wilson’s unconscious body double, appropriately covered in a fencing mask.

Landau proves pretty terrific at establishing and maintaining the exaggerated playing style, and managing all the chaos and confusion; the physical humor has impressive precision.  But here’s the problem.  Turmoil can 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.  Erlbach just isn’t very creative in his choice of characters, and for a show with enough plot to fill a cavernous copper mine, surprises are few.  The playwright has taken on a set of figures who are little more than bull’s eyes awaiting target practice.

Although it is far better crafted and more polished than “Plantation,” Lookingglass Theatre’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.

Jimmy (Rainn Wilson) meets Rosie the maid (Celeste M. Cooper) in The Doppelgänger (an international farce)” by Matthew-Lee Erlbach. | Michael Brosilow Photo