Photo by Charles Osgood
The title of The Band’s Visit playwright Itamar Moses’ latest play, The Whistleblower, evokes thoughts of selfless and brave (or—depending on your politics—reckless, ungrateful, or even traitorous) people who risk everything to expose ugly corporate or national secrets.
It’s not about that.
The play, now premiering at Theater Wit under the direction of AD Jeremy Wechsler, is actually about the relationship between the Truth and how we live our lives. It opens with struggling screenwriter Eli (Ben Faigus) going to LA to pitch a new show called (in a meta move that obscures the playwright’s intention for the title) “The Whistleblower,” which is about a writer who pitches scripts for production and suddenly realizes that he no longer wishes to be part of an industry that basically runs on lies; from the pitch’s own exaggerations to the reactions of the producers, he sees that he is aiding a culture of duplicity. So, in the middle of the meeting, he stops his pitch and walks out (much to the shock and chagrin of his agent/best friend and the producer).
Eli’s epiphany is the catalyst for everything that follows, as he decides in that moment to ditch his career and his life and instead live one of pure honesty. (If you are already having flashbacks to the Jim Carrey movie Liar, Liar, you are forgiven.) Faigus is brilliant as he recognizes all of this. Already playing Eli in the low-key style of John Krasinski as Jim Halpert in “The Office,” Faigus abruptly seems to start listening to what his character is actually saying in his pitch. You can practically watch the thoughts taking shape and becoming fully formed. (It’s one of two such brilliant visual moments in the play; the other comes from Rae Gray as the woman Eli left a decade ago.)
After this stunningly promising opening, though, Moses squanders both the character and the concept, as if once he conceived it he was never quite sure what to do with it. The play immediately devolves into a series of repetitive and awkward scenes about how this sudden passion for truth-telling affects both Eli and his world.
Eli’s first stop is his home, where he tells his live-in girlfriend (a hilarious turn by Julia Alvarez) that he really doesn’t care that much for her after all. Her predictable reaction is pretty much the same one he later gets from his sister (Rae Gray, balancing the comedy with an honest and painful portrayal) when he tells her that he will inform their parents of the fact that she sells meth if she doesn’t do so first. As to those parents: RJW Mays and Michael Kostroff work hard to get the laughs, but perhaps at the cost of the characters’ souls. It’s hard to know what to think of people who seem to have been born out of a single phrase, whether that is comically overbearing or unsuccessful milquetoast.
Eli’s scenes with two old friends, played by William Anthony Sebastian Rose II and Andrew Jessop, are both pretty much one-bit affairs: we get the controlling wife again with the former and the latter is schizophrenic, which does not stop him from also being a (mostly) sympathetic presence.
Honestly, I’m not sure whether the flaw here is in the episodic structure of the play, which pretty much forces Wechsler to reach again and again for laughter over honesty, or what. It is telling, though, that the two times Eli faces a realistic character—his sister and his ex, both played by Gray—the Truth becomes, instead of a bludgeon for him to wield, an arrow to the heart. The scene with his long-abandoned ex is especially poignant. However, this makes the overdone parents and the wilder moments of other scenes feel as if they belong in some other play.
Maybe that’s it: maybe Moses was trying to have it too many ways. Maybe he had Liar, Liar in mind as well and felt a need to make everything BIGGER. Maybe there could have been enough humor inherent in the concept that exaggeration wouldn’t be needed. There is a place for the farcical, but here it hurts what otherwise could be a very solid and provocative show.
The Whistlerblower is now playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, until June 17. Tickets are available at the Theater Wit Box Office. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.