Lucas Neff, a born-and-raised Chicago actor, was fortunate enough to snag a leading role in a popular TV sitcom, "Raising Hope" on the Fox network. He plays a lovable but generally clueless young man, a role that, in the great scheme of the entertainment industry, will doubtless offer young Neff an easy trajectory to other such potentially stultifying roles. Regardless, he already has made out with Ashley Tisdale. That you cannot easily do off-Loop.
So what does Neff worry about as he lies there in the warm Los Angeles twilight? To find out, one could read an interview with the actor, or one could watch Neff's very intriguing new Chicago play, "The Last Duck," premiering at the Viaduct Theatre under the auspices of the Jackalope Theatre Company. I suspect the play, which is Lucas' first, would be the more revealing option. There are no protective publicists when Neff sits alone at the computer, typing. And he most certainly can write.
It's not hard to see "The Last Duck" as the expression of a suddenly successful young writer-actor's worries. The setup here is that we have a writer named Royall (ah-ha, could this be half of Neff?) and a Chicago actor named Gerry (could this be his other half?). There is a mostly absurdly scenario that gets the two of them in a lonely room wherein Royall can menace Gerry, a potential tenant who is unable to leave. It involves a house near a dredged lake and a taxi company that apparently is very selective in where it picks people up. I didn't believe a moment of it. Fortuitously, that doesn't torpedo the evening. Not at all.
As Royall and Gerry talk at each other — the setup has one foot in Harold Pinter, the other in Stephen King — they meditate on such little matters as finding success without losing your soul. The actor, Gerry, unleashes a couple of blistering monologues about how he works in Chicago for the artistic validation. (God knows, it's not for the money.) But he harbors a deep unease about whether that validation exists mostly in his head. He also lays into critics — it's one thing, he implies, for some jerk to bust your creative balloon when you're making a nice chunk of change on, oh, a sitcom, but far more painful when that know-nothing savages you when the only reward is, well, artistic validation. The very artistic validation you're now very publicly not being afforded. That hurts. More than anything.
Royall is hurting too — even though he owns the place in which the two creatives fight, warring the actor in submission, only for the actors to poke holes in the case of a writer who seems to have been abandoned by who (or that) which he loves. Actually, the writer-actor divide is something of a red herring. "The Last Duck" is really about art versus commerce, Chicago versus Los Angeles, success versus anonymity, control versus no control at all but plenty of money, artistic community versus entertainment product.
Neff benefits from the very tight direction of Marti Lyons — this play moves at a blistering pace that ensures its talky, static nature does not land it in the lake. And he also has two terrific Chicago actors baring their souls in a most satisfying fashion. Neff has stipulated that Pat Whalen and Andrew Burden Swanson switch roles every other night, which strikes me as both an affectation and a writer exerting too much control. I saw Whalen as Royall and Swanson as Gerry. Both were excellent and unstinting. But I suspect it would be the same either way, given that they're playing two halves of the same guy.
It's hardly the first such play about a Chicagoan in La La Land — most of the Chicago playwrights who go West write such a piece, from David Mamet on down. But it's rare to see one by a young actor in a sitcom. And there is something about the exciting, smart, edgy, everything-in-play way Neff writes raw dialogue that constantly pulls your attention and makes you want to see the next thing he writes. He will soon be done with this issue; as you age, the rewards of commerce settle in nicely. But "The Last Duck" is enough to reveal that there is more to this clearly most talented, smart and generally righteous dude than you'll ever see on Fox.
"Duck?" Fox? Hmm ...
When: Through April 15
Where: Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $10-$15 at 773-340-2553 or jackalopetheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times