Rabe’s “Cosmologies” is an absurdist play that just doesn’t work

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Claire Demos.

You know how you can tell if your play might be a tad self-indulgent? If it’s over two and a half hours long and your name isn’t Shakespeare or Eugene O’Neill, that might be a good starting point. Not that there aren’t a lot of long plays that are worth every second, but I’d be wary of asking an audience to sit that long; it seems to me to be inviting trouble, especially if a lot of your play’s dialogue sounds like pop philosophy filtered through the mind of a particularly geeky astrophysicist. David Rabe has written some fine plays over his career, including Sticks and Bones, HurlyBurly, and Streamers. But that does not prevent him from going off the deep end once in a while, and that’s the case with the midwest premiere of Cosmologies, now playing at the Gift Theatre. This is an ambitious mess of a script that seeks to answer all sorts of Important questions about life, the universe, and everything but doesn’t come close to doing it as well as Douglas Adams.

The story, which (in true absurdist fashion) has as many sharp turns as a mountain road, involves a high school honors student named Eric (Kenny Mihlfried) who tricks his best friend Milt (Gregory Fenner) into stealing some of his dad’s liquor and absconding on a bus to Chicago. The play opens in a seedy hotel room where Milt is just awakening from a bender and, when he finds out what his friend has done, freaks out and heads back home, leaving Eric to fend for himself. A miscommunication leads to an encounter with a pimp named Richard (James D. Farruggio) and a hooker named Teddy (Darci Nalepa). A few more miscommunications, and Richard ends up stabbing Eric. Which is where, for me, the play went entirely off the rails.

I should say that I think this is what happened: in Rabe’s bizarre, time-and-character-bending script, it’s anyone’s guess which elements are real and which imagined. What of the convict (John Kelly Connolly) who suddenly arrives and befriends Eric? Does he even exist? Why do Teddy and Richard suddenly turn up as a fifties-style husband and wife who might or might not also be Eric’s parents? Who or what are the strange beaked creatures who appear a couple of times? Or the strange pair of cops (Martel Manning and Hannah Toriumi) who show up looking for the convict? And is all of this merely a fever dream from the injured Eric? (The program does state that both acts take place in the hotel, though the second act is set elsewhere…) And just what IS Eric trying to discover in the cosmos?

You’ll be forgiven if you end up unsure of some of these answers after watching Cosmologies. Though this is a well-acted play (and indeed the actors seem to be having a grand time), it’s a play that simply doesn’t come together. I happen to like absurdism done well; I like the comic elements and the inevitable philosophical conundrums that such plays generally present. I like the puzzle of figuring out how to piece all of the parts together. But Rabe, a Gift ensemble member who usually handles absurdism well, just doesn’t make this one work. And the Gift does him no favors either with a set designed by two people (Courtney O’Neill and Angela McIlvain) that mostly seems to be a collection of old parts from other plays. (Give them credit for the cosmos wall, though; at least it’s pretty.) The lighting (Charles Cooper) and sound (Christopher Kriz) designs are a highlight, and director Michael Patrick Thornton has gotten some nice performances from his actors, but even his considerable talent and experience can’t right this ship.

The Gift is an adventurous theatre, always ready to take on newer works and take risks with older ones. (Its recent Hamlet and Hang Man are proof of that.) But sometimes a theatre that doesn’t generally play it safe will end up with a play that just doesn’t work. Cosmologies is far less than the sum of its parts. Thornton and the prolific Rabe return to the Gift’s tiny stage sometime soon and will undoubtedly have more hits together. This just isn’t the one. As always, though, YMMV; read other reviews and decide for yourself.

Cosmologies is a Gift Theatre production now playing at 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, through Dec 9. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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