When does a lie take on a life of its own? Two very different plays, running within blocks of each other on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, tackle that question.
"Dark Play, or Stories for Boys" ***
Carlos Murillo's "Dark Play, or Stories for Boys" transplants the bizarre-but-true story of two British boys whose lives become twisted through one of the kids' online fabrications (reported by Judy Bachrach seven years ago in Vanity Fair magazine) to a California beach town. There, Nick (a febrile Clancy McCartney) tells us of his "Universal Theory of the Gullibility Threshold." Sharply observant and more than a little manipulative, Nick delights in figuring out which lies he can plausibly deliver without getting caught.
His ultimate pigeon? Adam (Aaron Kirby), an all-American teen whose guileless online profile tells the world that he just wants to fall in love. Inspired by his high school drama teacher's breathless paeans to the "dangerous nature of theater," Nick decides to set his own "dark play" in motion by pretending to be Rachel, a made-up version of Adam's dream girl. But as the lies pile up, Nick finds himself torn between his own desire for Adam and jealousy of his creation, with increasingly disturbing consequences.
Murillo's play, first staged at the Humana Festival in Louisville in 2007, has had several productions around the country, but this is the Chicago premiere for the DePaul playwriting professor's piece. It's a good match with the tastes and sensibilities of Collaboraction — a company that has long been interested in exploring youth culture and the clash between virtual worlds and the stage. Director Anthony Moseley's spare staging — just four translucent panels frame the ends of the runway playing area, and there are minimal props — allows the 90-minute show to move with relentless drive.
Real characters, online presences, and Nick's inventions blend and bleed into one another with dizzying shifts. Olivia Dustman delivers a pair of well-drawn contrasting performances as the fictional sweet-but-conflicted Rachel (Nick cunningly notes that "in order to be plausible, she had to be kind of average") and as Molly, the real girl whose hook-up with Nick provides the opportunity for him to come clean about his past. Jane deLaubenfels and Sorin Brouwers add comic panache as a variety of "netizens" who pop up in the chat rooms where Nick unleashes his manipulations.
The piece is a tad dated — in the age of Facebook and Twitter, who uses chat rooms? And the denouement feels like a bit of a cheat. But as a meditation on the fungibility of identity (especially for teens who already feel emotionally adrift in the world), it's a smart taut, and sometimes sorrowful tale.
Through Feb. 26 at Collaboraction, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $25 at 312-226-9633 or collaboraction.org
"The Drawer Boy" ***
A different kind of male bonding and deception unfolds in Michael Healey's bittersweet "The Drawer Boy," which had a production at Steppenwolf in 2001 starring John Mahoney and Frank Galati. No such star power is on hand for this co-production of Filament Theatre Ensemble and the Den Theatre. But Julie Ritchey's unfussy staging delivers a warm-hearted and intimate portrait of two bachelor farmers (in early 1970s Ontario) whose lives are upended by the arrival of a budding actor/playwright.
Morgan (Nick Polus) is the laconic caregiver for Angus (Will Kinnear), who suffered a brain injury during World War II that destroyed his short-term memory. Nearly every night, Morgan tells Angus the story of the two British girls — "one tall, the other taller" — with whom he and Angus fell in love in London, and whose tragic deaths in a car crash in Canada after the war has left the men bereft. When well-meaning but hapless Miles (Marco Minichiello) comes to work on the farm, he overhears the story and puts it into the documentary-style play he's creating with his ensemble.
But the story of Morgan and Angus is more complicated than Miles realizes, and Healey raises poignant questions. Is a lie told for the best of reasons less cruel? And who has the right to make that decision?
Polus and Kinnear are a little young for the roles, and Minichiello slightly overplays the eager-beaver, fish-out-of-water city kid in Miles. But there is a deeply humane strain running through Healey's play that, despite a few hiccups here and there, carries this production to a satisfying conclusion.
Through Feb. 25 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $22 at 773-270-1660 or filamenttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times