Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through May 27
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Reality in Washington and the world has become so farcical, it’s no surprise that farces about serious subjects are taking over area stages. First “Plantation!” tackled racism and reparations at Lookingglass Theatre Company. Now Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s savage “The Doppelgänger (an international farce)” is skewering multinational greed and corruption in a sharply acted world premiere directed by Tina Landau at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre.
Set in Bangui, Central African Republic, the play is a classic farce from the dozen louvered doors on Todd Rosenthal’s bilevel set of a colonial estate mansion to the many sight gags (including shit literally hitting the fan). Erlbach obviously loves vintage comedy, and he packs the proceedings with both obvious and obscure references, among them an extended riff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine and a wheelchair reminiscent of Dr. Shrangelove’s, not to mention ultra-timely topical allusions.
The plot centers on Thomas Irdley, British owner of a copper mine that has been shut down by the current government. Played with slightly off-kilter aplomb by Rainn Wilson (best known as Dwight Schrute on “The Office”), he wants to get the mine up and running again at all costs and, to that end, has invited a group of would-be power brokers for a confab. The “maid” Rosie Guerekoyame (Celeste M. Cooper), who runs the household, is determined to convince him to give the perennially exploited mine workers fair pay and benefits, a notion Irdley dismisses but with which his wife Theresa (Sandra Marquez) sympathizes, though she’s out of the house most of the time.
Shortly before the guests arrive, Irdley mistakenly takes zebra tranquilizer instead of his medication and is knocked-out cold—or possibly dead. Then his doppelgänger, who he met by accident and invited over, shows up. Also played by Wilson, he’s a cross between an ugly American and clueless Everyman: a goofy kindergarten teacher named Jimmy Peterson from Quincy, IL, dressed in shorts and a multicolored shirt who arrives bearing dead chickens (for no apparent reason). Rosie sees a chance to enact her agenda and, shoving the unconscious Irdley into a closet in his fencing gear, convinces Peterson to impersonate him with a little lie and some righteous speeches.
Scathing caricatures, some of whom bear more than an accidental resemblance to real people, the guests include General Shanley Harcourt (Michael Accardo), who sees an opportunity for arms deals; politician Beatrix Geddes-Renwick (Audrey Francis), who envisions the British empire rising again between bouts of IBS; Wen Xiaoping (Whit K. Lee), a Chinese-American whiz kid seeking cheap copper to fuel his clean-energy plan; and randy bisexual Prince Amir Abdullah (Andy Nagraj), who arrives with Brazilian money-laundering seductress Marina (Karen Rodriguez), who isn’t who she seems. The latecomers are deposed wheelchair-bound strongman Michel Másarágba (James Vincent Meredith), who’s eager to stage a coup and return to power, and his regal wife Lalade (Ora Jones), who disagrees with everything her husband says.
Shenanigans, sexual and otherwise, ensue, with plenty of slamming doors, late-night assignations, and double-crosses as these selfish schemers jockey for power, and the situation spins out of control. Peterson tries to rein them in, at one point hilariously using his best kindergarten teacher tactics, and when that doesn’t work, he takes a Swiftian approach, offering a scenario of them raping and pillaging the whole country. But to his and Rosie’s dismay, most of the others think this is a great idea.
Things unfortunately go from bad to worse, as Erlbach takes them to their logical extreme and shocking finale. The tragedy seems incongruous compared to the typical conventions of farce, but it’s somehow—disturbingly–consistent with the way things are today.
Besides the performances—Wilson and Cooper actually make us care about their characters until almost the end—and the clever, witty script, the main pleasure of “The Doppelgänger” is the impeccable comic timing, With the help of physical comedy consultant Jeff Jenkins and others, director Landau orchestrates a sometimes frenzied feast of pratfalls, rescued furnishings, and other visual jokes. Credit also goes to Beau D’oublé (Dan Plehal), who thanks to the fencing mask, enables Wilson to be in two places at once.
One can argue that the play is too long by about 20 minutes and some of the bits become tedious, but there’s no questioning the talent and skill involved. Or the fact that Erlbach inventively uses farce to probe the sorry state we’re in, perhaps in the vain hope of making things better.