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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Doppelgänger (an international farce)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's review of Our Great Tchaikovsky

Rainn Wilson (center), Andy Nagraj, Whit K. Lee,
Audrey Francis, Michael Accardo, Karen Rodriguez,
James Vincent Meredith, Celeste M. Cooper,
and Sandra Marquez

Photo by Michael Brosilow
We may think of farce as frothy stuff—silly, but entertaining, and enjoyable but without substance. Most of the classic farces that have survived were satirical, though. Tartuffe took aim at religious hypocrisy. Two centuries later, The Importance of Being Earnest skewered attitudes toward love and marriage. The Doppelgänger (an international farce), now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf, honors both the structural conventions and satiric traditions of classic farce, though with some unexpected targets. This new play by Matthew-Lee Erlbach takes on the exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa—a topic that may not be top-of-mind for most of us but in which we as a society and individuals may be more complicit than we realize.

The Doppelgänger is set in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, a real-life country that was a French colony from the 1890s through 1960 and has experienced coups and civil wars ever since. The action takes place in the French Colonial mansion of Thomas Irdley, the haughty British owner of a substantial number of copper mines. He's hosting a group of overnight guests who each hope to profit from Irdley's copper. There's a British government official, Beatrix Geddes-Renwick (Audrey Francis); an American general tied in with the American Military-Industrial Complex, General Stanley Harcourt (Michael Accardo); the Arabic Prince Amir Abdullah and his Brazilian companion Marina (Andy Nagraj and Karen Rodriguez); the Chinese-American technology executive Web Xiaoping (Whit K. Lee) looking for cheap copper for his electronics products; and the former president and first lady of the Central African Republic (James Vincent Meredith and Ora Jones), who are plotting to return to power. And one other guest, Irdley's "doppelganger," or perfect double, a well-meaning but naïve American kindergarten teacher from Quincy, Illinois, Jimmy Peterson—played, as is Irdley, by Rainn Wilson. We learn that Irdley met Peterson some years ago and found him charming enough to maintain an acquaintance. Peterson happens to be in the neighborhood in conjunction with a Habitat for Humanity project and has been invited to spend a few days at the Irdley estate.

Irdley's wife Theresa (Sandra Marquez) is off to a humanitarian project and won't be around to greet the guests. Shortly after Jimmy's arrival, Irdley mistakenly takes Zebra tranquilizers in place of his medication and falls into something like a coma. Irdley's maid Rosie (Celeste M. Cooper) sees an opportunity to advance her plan for providing fair wages to the workers of her beleaguered country. She convinces Jimmy to pose as Irdley and attempt to convince the assembling power brokers to accept her agenda.

As the guests arrive, the conventions of farce take off. Irdley's inert body (hidden inside a fencing suite complete with helmet) is stuffed into closets, hidden in the attic, hung from the ceiling, and made to suffer all sorts of other indignities. Guests pursue secret sexual attractions of both straight and gay natures, bedroom doors open and close, and slapstick abounds. Wife Theresa of course returns home prematurely, but in time to misinterpret the goings-on. Erlbach unabashedly throws in anything that might earn a laugh, including shameless puns, bathroom humor and a riff on the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine. Most of it contributes to a very funny evening, even if two hours plus of stage time (plus an intermission) is a long time to sustain this mania.

The dual roles of Thomas Irdley and Jimmy Peterson are a star-sized showcase for Rainn Wilson, the officious Dwight K. Schrute of American TV's "The Office." Most of Wilson's stage time is spent as Jimmy, but that character is a tour-de-force role in itself. Initially sunny and optimistic like some Midwestern Candide, Jimmy must pretend to be Irdley and try to fit in with the power brokers, appear to be evil and conniving, and be alternately confident and petrified. Wilson executes the physical comedy expertly and, like his TV Schrute character, is hilariously un-self-aware. It's a star role played by a genuine comedic star. Wilson is more than ably supported by his castmates, all of whom create vivid comic characters and satiric targets.

Tina Landau, whose varied body of work includes everything from Shakespeare to musicals, intimate dramas and spectacles, proves she can handle farce. She has frequently worked on a large canvas—her Tempest and The Wheel both at Steppenwolf come to mind—and this is another big one, what with its 11-person cast, an elaborate and hyper-realistic set by Todd Rosenthal, and the physical demands of its comedy.

There is one caveat, though, and perhaps this is a bit of a spoiler. While farce typically shows physical and mental indignities heaped on the pompous and powerful—and that is mostly the case here—the play takes a dark, mean turn during its last section in its treatment of Jimmy, the closest thing to an innocent among the characters. Erlbach lets us have a good time as he skewers those who would exploit the weak for profit, but he adds some twists to show us he means what he's saying. If in traditional farces, all wraps up neatly with good and bad guys getting what they deserve, that's not what happens here. He suggests that our compulsion to consume ever-upgraded consumer electronics at low prices might lead manufacturers to grab precious natural resources like copper from the land of the people who mine it for slave wages. Africa is still called the "dark continent" and is easy to ignore—for now—but Erlbach is warning us not to deny our responsibility toward this huge part of the world.

The Doppelgänger (an international farce), through June 2, 2018, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago IL. More information and tickets available at or by phone at 312-335-1650.