"No actor should be in Chicago 'cause they wanta make money," a character says in "The Last Duck," a new play that includes a brief but pointed look at our Second City complex. "It's more about art," the guy says. "You know, whatever that means. Or you gotta tell yourself that."
Countless Chicago performers working in theater, sketch or improv, have been down this path before. Scraping by. Doing it for nothing but artistic fulfillment. That's the Chicago way, a tradition set in motion during the early renegade years of playwright David Mamet or the founding members of Steppenwolf Theatre and passed down to an endless succession of storefront companies ever since.
But one can only live on a diet of ramen and unrealized potential for so long. Lucas Neff, the actor and Chicago native who wrote "The Last Duck," knows this intimately (the play continues through Sunday at the Viaduct Theatre). Just weeks before he landed the role of Jimmy Chance on the Fox sitcom"Raising Hope" — recently renewed for a third season — he was cleaning toilets in Chicago.
He is in an entirely different tax bracket now, and glad for it. But the cupidity of Hollywood has made him wary. That's why he's back, working in Chicago for the next few months. "Not every play (in Chicago) excites me to my artistic core," he said last week, "but there's a lot of stuff out there that's like, 'Yeah, I would love to be in that play.' In LA, the scripts are like — just the titles alone are so depressing, like 'Dumb Girls.' So there is that question of, why do I want to be an actor? To be in movies and TV just for the sake of making money and it's a good job?"
In "The Last Duck," Neff's alter ego puts it this way: "Money kills art. That's a fact." If that doesn't sound like the rallying cry of Chicago's storefront theater scene, I don't know what does. But there will always be that tension, between the poverty-level purity of work in Chicago and the lure of becoming a household name, with a healthy net worth to match.
Is there something in the water these days? Two other new plays embrace this neurotic preoccupation, as well. "Johnny Theatre," at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (through May 12), is a screwball look at the chaos that ensues when a Chicago-actor-turned-Hollywood-big-shot comes back in an effort to recapture his edge.
Problem is, he returns with a massive ego that has outgrown the humility (and humiliations) of off-Loop theater, and there is rich satire in this dynamic. The Chicago actors he aligns with are just as compromised. This will put us on the map, they think, and prove that our theater company is more than just a glorified drinking club.
Meanwhile, billed as a "truly Chicago tale," playwright Randall Colburn's "The Improv Play" opens Thursday at the Storefront Theater and follows the lives of three aspiring improvisers struggling for success and validation after one of their pals hits the jackpot, landing a gig on"Saturday Night Live"— a pattern, by the way, that repeats over and over again in real life.
Some choose to live here and do get national work, but the opportunities are limited. The Second City veteran and respected improviser David Pasquesi chose to stay, but even he was in LA this spring for TV pilot season. It was an ironic experience: "While I was there, I went in and auditioned on tape for a pilot back here (a Fox medical drama that wrapped production in Chicago last week), which I got. So there was absolutely no reason to go out there."
"There's always going to be this awful ambivalence," said Keegan-Michael Key, who logged time at The Second City before ditching Chicago for a job on "MADtv." More recently, Key teamed up with another former Chicago actor, Jordan Peele, for the breakout hit sketch show "Key & Peele" on Comedy Central, which has been picked up for a second season. Before TV, "I was the worst," Key said. "I was pretentious, I was stuck-up, I wouldn't watch television, the whole nine yards. I'm one of those people who turned my nose up at commercial work, blah, blah, blah, and then the second I got a job (in LA), I went.
"If you decide to stay in Chicago, you have to have so much confidence in yourself, because you'll never be able to completely convince other humans that you actually made that choice. People will assume it was a choice made for you."
Ian Gomez, who plays Andy, the lovably put-upon husband on ABC's "Cougar Town," made his bones in Chicago performing at iO and at Second City, where he met his wife, Nia Vardalos. The couple left for Los Angeles in the mid-'90s because "I was like, 'I really don't like being broke. I'm done with that. What's next?' You keep wanting more and more — what's the next step?"
But the indignities in Hollywood can be endless. "Now I have the good fortune to be able to say no to things," said Gomez. "It's a very powerful, wonderful thing to be able to say, 'No, I'm not going to be 'Schmuck No. 2' wearing the heart boxers, and I bend over and they rip in half.' And there was a time where I would have (had) to take jobs like that."
This tension exists for audiences, too, by the way. We want local actors to hit the big time and become celebrities. We want the bragging rights, out of some weird mixture of pride and Second City insecurity. Steve Carell, Mike Myers, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler honed their skills in Chicago; so did Gary Sinise, John Cusack, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, "Modern Family's" Eric Stonestreet, Andy Richter and Jane Lynch.
The list goes on. For the most part, people don't come back. And we — the irrational, demanding, star-craving audience — feel cruelly forsaken. Didn't we make these people?
"It's not irrational," said Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney last week from his home in New York, "and it's a two-sided thing. The performers feel it every bit as much. Because you go out and feel like a worker bee — someone who's lucky to land something (in TV or film) — whereas you had a home back in Chicago, an artistic home."
Kinney (who co-stars in the new CBS cop drama "NYC 22," which premieres Sunday) is blunt about the trade-off: "The theater in Chicago is superior by a long way. It's not starting with dollar signs. That's the difference, and it's a very big one and a very clear one."
"Johnny Theatre" takes this kind of sentiment and milks it for parody. As the obnoxious Hollywood actor says in the play: "This is going to be a bare-bones, no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty production that will literally kick the audience" into submission.
For most stars, Chicago is out of sight, out of mind, but there are exceptions. Steppenwolf ensemble member John Mahoney kept his home in Oak Park throughout the run of "Frasier" and has been working in local theater steadily ever since. William Petersen of "CSI" fame maintains a home here and occasionally performs around town. Every so often, David Schwimmer directs a play at Lookingglass. Tracy Letts became a hot commodity — and a Pulitzer Prize winner — after writing "August: Osage County," and yet he still lives and works in Chicago at the Steppenwolf. (And he recently jumped onstage with old pal Pasquesi for an improv set at iO last month.) Michael Shannon has since moved to New York, but six months after his Oscar nomination for "Revolutionary Road," he was back in Chicago performing for 74 people a night in the tiny storefront space of his hometown theater, A Red Orchid, a small but first-rate company coming up on its 20th anniversary.
It's nice to think you might bump into a Pulitzer winner or an Oscar nominee in the grocery store. Like it or not, that kind of thing helps burnish our own sense of Chicago's legitimacy. But that's a rarity. Most people don't achieve big success and then come back and do storefront theater. It just doesn't happen. "It's not about any sense of obligation," Shannon said earlier this week from LA. "I'm not being altruistic or anything. I just enjoy being in Chicago, and I love working at Red Orchid. I'm not trying to make a point or prove anything."
But there is a point being made: that it's possible to have a major Hollywood career — in the last 12 months, Shannon juggled work on"Boardwalk Empire" with his role as General Zod in the forthcoming "Man of Steel" blockbuster — and not turn your back on your storefront roots. Shannon has signed on for another play at Red Orchid in summer 2013.
"I never really wanted to leave Chicago," he said. "I never got frustrated with being in Chicago. I mean, I didn't have a very high standard of living, but I didn't get into acting to make money." And yet: "There's no money to be made at Red Orchid. After all this time, we're still struggling (as a company) to survive, constantly. It's really hard."
It's a unique coincidence of timing. "The Last Duck," "Johnny Theatre" and "The Improv Play" have all landed onstage within weeks of one another, drilling deep into Chicago's insecurities: You're busting your hump, but does anybody notice?
For his part, playwright Neff said he intends to keep working in Chicago, regardless of his career path in LA. But even he admits to being fallible.
"I don't know, maybe I'll become a really ruthless, cynical, money-hungry, glory-hungry person. That seems to happen to a lot of people," he said. "It seems to be a pretty natural progression, and it starts to be all about the biggest stage and the brightest lights and the biggest paycheck."