There's a long and noble theatrical tradition of the revenge tragedy — brooding souls plotting a way to right some perceived wrong and filling up an evening by trying to figure out what to do. There are fewer revenge comedies, although the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn gave that genre a stab ("The Revengers' Comedies") and, with the likes of "9 to 5" and "Kill Bill," Hollywood has made some cash from that base human impulse.
"Exit, Pursued by a Bear," the relatively new 75-minute comedy by Lauren Gunderson now in its Chicago premiere from Theatre Seven of Chicago, has something in common with "9 to 5," at least in that it involves the tying up of a jerk of a man. (The title comes from the famously impossible Shakespearean stage direction.) But Gunderson's focus is domestic — Nan (Tracey Kaplan), a southern gal from a small Georgia town, has had her fill of her redneck hubby Kyle (Ryan Hallahan), and thus she decides to extract a theatrical kind of revenge, employing both a local actress/stripper (played by Elizabeth Hope Williams) and her gay best pal (Ryan Lanning) to re-enact various scenes from their frustrating marriage. Their show is intended for an audience of one, immobilized by duct tape and fearful that he might end up as some beast's junk food. But he fights back.
This is hardly a groundbreaking drama, but "Exit" is an imaginative, quick-witted and modestly amusing piece of nouveau Southern gothic writing — dramaturgically trendy and self-aware enough to interest regional theaters but still quite poignant and authentic in its depiction of a young woman's finally choosing to empower herself rather than please her abusive mate. Alas, director Cassy Sanders' well-meaning but uneven production falls into a number of common traps.
The first problem is that Theatre Seven is staging the piece in the intimate Upstairs Studio at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, even as the performances feel scaled for a much larger space. The second is that works of this kind of quirky style grow tiresome and twee if the performances do not provide the counterweight of total veracity; here, you can't quite believe enough in Nan (Kaplan feels miscast) to empathize with her dilemma. And her colorful sidekicks, fun as they can be, don't credibly live anywhere except a play. And the third is that Sanders struggles with the natural rhythms of the piece. This broad production needed more attention to the driving force of the storytelling. Sanders has lots of clever little details in her work, but not so much in the way of high stakes and credible, moment-by-moment dramatic tension. Yet if there's one thing that revengers, comedic or tragic, have in common, it's relentless pursuit of their prey.
When: Through July 15
Where: Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes