Just as the sun starts coming out in Chicago, so do a couple of terrific new plays.
The Goodman Theatre is just completing a season dominated by ambitious world premieres: "Stage Kiss" from Sarah Ruhl, "Mary" by Thomas Bradshaw, "El Nogalar" by Tanya Saracho. But while all of these shows had their merits, it has taken until the last show of the season for the Goodman to really have a hit. David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" is that rare and desirable theatrical beast that's culturally wise, thematically complex and politically timely — but also enough of a good time that if you head over to Dearborn Street directly from the office, you won't feel like you've shelled out money to take part in some kind of academic, after-hours seminar.
You'll actually have a number of good laughs. Trust me on that.
Those laughs, mostly born of language mistranslations, are a large part of why New York producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel are backing "Chinglish" on Broadway this fall. These guys spend so much time scouting exportable new plays in Chicago that Rahm Emanuel should have them over for a cookout. "Chinglish" will share the Great White Way with Lisa D'Amour's "Detroit," another fine new play that began in Chicago, at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
"Chinglish" also is a boon for the Goodman Theatre, which finds itself in the happy position of having a tourist-friendly — well, a smart-tourist friendly — show that it can keep on extending into the summer months. You might see a little spring in the step in those who toil in the offices over there. This time last year, the Goodman was suffering through "The Sins of Sor Juana," which nobody wanted to see.
With "Chinglish," the joint should be sufficiently jumping that even the eatery Petterino's, where they like to shout "last call" roughly at the same time as a curtain comes down, might finally be tempted to keep the lights on a bit later. That's just as well because the attractions at the surrounding Broadway in Chicago venues in the Loop are unusually thin this summer in terms of quantity and prestige, "West Side Story" notwithstanding.
"I think that what makes a great artist," said Goodman artistic director Robert Falls in the wake of the "Chinglish" success, "is an artist whose themes are consistent."
Falls was saying that when you pick up a play by Eugene O'Neill, say, or Horton Foote or Edward Albee, you immediately recognize the thematic concerns, even if the style or tone of the individual plays vary. You can read the plays of Arthur Miller and you can appreciate the ebbs and flows of his public and personal lives, and even the way he changed his mind as to what was, or was not, important. Yet you still always know you are reading a Miller play.
Hwang's "Chinglish" puts you in mind of that kind of trajectory — it's an updating and reworking of "M. Butterfly," his famous 1988 play, but Hwang's themes about the way the East and West interact are instantly recognizable.
Philip Dawkins, who penned the other recent Chicago world premiere I want to highlight, is at a very different point in his career. And his new drama, "The Homosexuals"
is not so much a matter of continuing a long-established authorial theme as pondering what the iconic gay dramas of the post-Stonewall era could or should mean to a young generation of gay Americans. Like "Chinglish," this is a timely piece. I am still recovering from the blistering Broadway revival of "The Normal Heart" (one of those iconic gay dramas about which Dawkins is writing), and New York has just made it possible for gays and lesbians to marry, sparking a big party at the Stonewall tavern in Greenwich Village and spilling over to the Chicago Pride Festival.
In this ensemble piece presented by About Face Theatre , Dawkins explores whether the communities formed in earlier eras — not so very long ago, but when gay marriage seemed like generations away — can, or should, hold in today's changed Chicago. It is a compelling exploration.
I wouldn't claim "The Homosexuals" to be the equal of "Chinglish." Dawkins has a long way to go, especially when it comes to getting to the point. But he clearly wants to make his audience think and entertain them.
After a lot of experiments, About Face, which almost sank into oblivion a year or so ago, finally has a summer show that a large number of ordinary, thinking, culturally savvy, entertainment-seeking Chicagoans will actually enjoy and want to see.
Like the struggling speakers of "Chinglish," "The Homosexuals" deserve to talk all summer.