You could make a case that the late Milton Friedman, who taught at the University of Chicago for more than 30 years, was the most internationally influential of Hyde Park's many illustrious residents — current occupants of the White House aside.
The famed, Nobel Prize-winning proponent of the monetarist school of economics was a key architect of so-called Reaganomics, and was revered by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her key macroeconomic advisers. He was talking about school vouchers as early as 1955, a debate that still roils today. And thanks to his journalistic efforts — he had a column in Newsweek for the best part of 20 years — his was a key role in the popularization of such concepts as limited government involvement in economic matters and the veneration of, to use the current term of choice, "job creators."
Along with his policy-making former students — the so-called "Chicago Boys" — Friedman also had a significant role in Chile in the years surrounding the 1973 coup that ended a democratically elected socialist government and brought the military dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. That's the most controversial part of Friedman's legacy, given that Friedman went to Chile and met with a man responsible for killing and torturing his opponents, even though Friedman said that he was a constant critic of that political system, even as he dispensed economic advice to Pinochet's government. This is the subject of "Chicago Boys," the new, still-in-development play by Kathleen Tolan, which is part of the Goodman Theatre's New Stages Amplified Series.
Tolan gets at Friedman through Joe Nelson (Derek Gaspar), a fictional version of one of the Chicago Boys who becomes disillusioned with his mentor after spending time in Chile, falling in love with the Chilean Cecilia Alarcon (played by Sandra Delgado), and learning about some of the less savory aspects of the new regime. In this play, Friedman (played by Bradley Armacost) and wife Rose (Deirdre Harrison) come across as benign, even impotent presences, worried more about bricks coming through their window than economic change and their massive contributions to it, expressed only through awkward little flashback sequences wherein they are making a (convenient) movie.
Friedman is, without question, a fabulous subject for a very smart play. One of the great dangers of being an economist with massive governmental influence is that you're often tarred with the same brush when the political advisee — economically righteous as he or she may be — does unsavory things. This is a risk faced by academic advisers of all disciplines. But to bring any of that up, Tolan has to wrestle with Friedman himself. He and his ideas have to be powerful enough to sustain a drama, which is not currently the case with "Chicago Boys."
You can discern that Tolan, an experienced writer, is not a fan. Fair enough — there is no prerequisite there. But whatever her disdain for the Chicago School and its role in South America, she must still give her man his due, if only to apply enough weight to what she clearly sees as his fatal blind spot. And while this play could and should work on a sophisticated level, it currently assumes far too much of a general audience, who will need to understand what Friedman did in Chicago before they can understand what he did or didn't do in Chile, and what those who followed him did or didn't do there in his name.
To put it another way, the plot starts much too late in the story and can't find its way back to the inciting ideas.
Gaspar and Delgado are charming, earnest presences in Ann Filmer's little production, but you constantly find yourself searching for the real story, which surely lies somewhere in and around Friedman himself.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.
Tickets: $10-$20 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times