With a cast of 21 actors crammed into the minuscule Gift Theatre, Sheldon Patinkin's production of Rodney Ackland's loquacious but fascinating play, "Absolute Hell," three hours and 15 minutes of mostly plot-free bohemian behavior in post-war London, is so ambitiously audacious that you find yourself gunning for it to succeed. Alas, it does not entirely work in these circumstances and, it must be said, there are many who would find themselves less than gripped by the events, or lack thereof, depicted in the piece.
But for the dedicated and forgiving theater-lover, the soul who believes that there is nothing that the capable denizens of a storefront theater cannot pull off on a budget of next to nothing, "Absolute Hell" is one of those eminently worthy, only-in-Chicago, ensemble-is-everything nights.
Ackland died in 1991, just as his plays were coming back into British vogue. Previously titled "The Pink Room," "Absolute Hell" was first seen in 1952 and quickly disappeared from view. It's a genuinely Chekhovian kind of drama — a bunch of arty types, misfits, radicals, gays, GI's and intellectuals hang out at the fading club, La Vie en Rose, to which they all belong. Even though epochal events are taking place just outside the club's doors — World War II is ending, the truth of the Holocaust is just beginning to seep into the public consciousness, the socialist Labour Party is about to take over Winston Churchill's Britain — it's just one big bacchanal at the La Vie en Rose, where the free-thinking members drink and seduce each other, mostly to forget their own misery.
One is put in mind of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" or, on occasion, the musical "Cabaret," another piece that probed the endless human capacity for turning inward and sucking down a cocktail whenever the geopolitical going gets tough outside.
What's striking about this play, which became quite famous in the 1990s in Britain on both stage and television, is its daring verbal and sexual content, flying in the face of the long-standing assumption that when John Osborne wrote "Look Back in Anger" in 1956, he single-handedly sparked a revolution in London theater. It's not about working-class angst, granted, but "Absolute Hell" otherwise makes "Look Back in Anger" look milquetoast.
Patinkin, a formidable director when it comes to ensembles, almost pulls off this production. And, indeed, there are moments here when the likes of Michael Patrick Thornton (who plays a washed-up writer named Hugh Marriner), Brittany Burch (as a lost soul of a party girl) and Kenny Mihlfried (playing a soldier who helped liberate a concentration camp) forge some exceptionally powerful scenes. A milieu is most certainly captured, and I was intrigued throughout, but there are still moments when it feels like the scale of the project was all a bit too much and the acting gets broad and more predictable. Lynda Newton, who has the tough role of Christine Foskett, Queen of La Vie en Rose, has some profoundly moving interludes, but at other times she seems to back away from the excess of it all, when she needs to grab it by the throat. And for a play with the whiff of so much sex, there is not enough sexual tension evident among the characters.
Frankly, the piece would work better if we could really see the club — but there's not much in Ian Zywica's prosaic set that really shows us a place that is a respite, tawdry but not without sensual appeal.
Throughout much of the play, what's left of the club literally falls apart around its members' ankles, moments here rendered only with sounds on tape. We don't need to see copious amounts of rubble, but we do need a more truthful sense of decay and collapse. In Ackland's world, the end of the building foretells people who are slowly and painfully learning that the reckoning eventually comes.
When: Through April 29
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes