Where: Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., upstairs
When: through Dec. 30
If Victory Gardens Theater were presenting “Failure: A Love Story” as a work-in-progress to supplement its regular reason, I’d be perfectly comfortable with the decision. Staged by director Seth Bockley in the intimate upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater, Philip Dawkins’ rather droll play uses familiar story theater to explore the lives and loves of the three eccentric Chicago sisters who all die the same year, namely 1928. Their last name is “Fail,” prompting a lot of predictable puns and peregrinations about the possibilities for success within the usual definitions of its opposite. The family runs a clock shop, so quips and questions about time flow fast and furiously, among them the age-old: Does knowing the moment and manner of our death make living easier?
The problem is that “Failure” is being ballyhooed as a world premiere and is the second show of the mainstage season, with ticket prices to match. And not only that: Dawkins is one of the four members of Artistic Director Chay Yew’s hand-picked Playwrights Ensemble, the creation of which has prompted considerable controversy (and a New York Times article) because it entailed bumping all the other VG playwrights to “alumni” status.
Unfortunately, all the hoopla raises expectations that “Failure” fails to meet. Although the production reminds me a tiny bit of City Lit Theater’s Bertie and Jeeves series years ago, Dawkins’ script, amusing as it is in parts, lacks both the wit and the wicked punch of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories. The device of having the actors narrate their own tale gets the proceedings off to a slow start, and the action doesn’t pick up until the arrival of the dapper stock trader, Mortimer Mortimer (Matt Fletcher), who falls for Nelly (Baize Buzan), Jenny June (Emjoy Gavino) and Gertrude (Mildred Marie Langford) “in that order” but ends his days with their taciturn animal-loving brother, John N. (Michael Salinas).
Before that, we’re treated to an account of how the Fail parents, Henry (Guy Massey) and Marietta (Janet Ulrich Brooks), immigrated to America, set up home and clock shop (est. 1900) in a rickety two-story building near the docks and stockyards, had three daughters and found one son, and died in a bizarre accident in their brand-new De Soto on the same morning as the Eastland disaster. While the Chicago River, Lake Michigan and other local landmarks play their roles, the treatment of the city is more generic than specific, just as the echoes of 1928 are meant to mirror the good times shortly before the present.
As to the sisters, Nelly, the youngest and a happy baby, takes up the life of a jazz-age girl about town; Jenny June trains to be the first female competitive river and lake swimmer; and Gertrude, the eldest, runs the clock shop. They die from a blow to the head, disappearance, and consumption “in that order” — a trope that’s repeated often. Meanwhile, John N., who readily admits he’s not a people person, keeps a menagerie featuring parakeets and a snake named Moses.
Dawkins weaves together episodes about their lives and deaths, incorporating period songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” as well as his original tunes meant to sound like they’re of the period. The gimmick is that the actors not only sing, they also play the musical instruments (both real and mimed), the animals, the clocks and inanimate objects. The narrative isn’t always linear or logical, either: A scene detailing John N.’s attitude toward euthanasia comes at an odd time, and its relevance isn’t revealed until much later.
Given that the script is as eccentric as the characters, it’s not surprising that Bockley and his ensemble struggle to find a consistent acting style. The narration is fairly straightforward with the requisite irony or tongue-in-cheek as needed. But many of the scenes with dialogue unfold as exaggerated mini melodramas — like parodies of old silent movies, but with words dubbed in. This is especially true of Mortimer’s first meeting with, and courtship of, Nelly, and it also occurs when he reveals his love for Jenny June and Gertrude. Since the many faces of love seems to be one of Dawkins’ themes, his approach strikes me as more distancing than engaging.
Physically, “Failure” is, to put it politely, homespun. Scott Davis’ set design, which stretches into the audience with wood planks along one wall, has a rudimentary and rustic feel matched by Mac Vaughey’s lighting and Charles Kim’s sound design. Emily Tarleton’s costumes merely suggest the period from 1900 to 1928, and several of them are makeshift and ugly. I assume Bockley chose to go in this direction deliberately, but I can imagine many better ways to capture the period and the people.
For all its flaws, “Failure: A Love Story” does have one essential redeeming quality: The characters are, overall, likable, though we don’t really care about them. Most of the performances are pretty good, too; I was especially taken by the way Gavino threw herself into the role of Jenny June.
On the other hand, I think VG needs to give some serious thought to what works are ready for world premieres, and it should make sure to use its fine mainstage facilities. If I were a subscriber this year, I would be starting to feel short-changed.