Hollywood takes Chicago theatre by (dust) storm in ‘Johnny Theatre’

Anderson Lawfer and Casey Pilkenton in "Johnny Theatre"

Ah, Chicago theatre. The place where people willingly toil away for countless hours in windowless black boxes, bearing their souls for little to no pay. As a frequent voyeur of such perversions, I’m in constant awe of the commitment and courage these artists place on telling a story to those of us who show up.

And in Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer’s biting new satire, Johnny Theatre, we get to see the drama behind the creation of gritty black box theatre — with a Hollywood twist.

Think of it as “Smash” for Chicago storefront. But more real, man. And zero autotune. With a little “Waiting for Guffman” thrown into the mix.

Johnny Theatre tells the story of the fictional, but very real-sounding, Havoc Theatre. This struggling storefront has been producing good work, but mostly in the shadows of other more successful companies. Oh, and the rent has gone up, their last hit show was three years ago, and everyone is a little worn out, including the founding artistic director Dana (played by the level-headed Casey Pilkenton), who works double shifts at Starbucks to pay the rent while she realizes her dream.

Enter Jonathan Duva, a successful movie star who got his start as a founding member at the Havoc Theatre. Duva (the douchily charismatic Anderson Lawfer) has announced via the press that he wants to go back to the theatre and produce his own play at Havoc, much to Havoc’s surprise. And he’s hand-selected Dana to direct his 3.5 hour long masterwork entitled Dusty. (I won’t give away the play-with-the-play’s premise, but it may or may not have something to do with the Great Depression.)

You can see where this is going. Rampant egos, starstruck actors, artistic differences, last minute cast changes, beer, sex and a shitty script. Needless to say, Dusty gets dirty pretty quickly.

Pynchon, a Chicago actor who spent some time in LA, clearly has penned this piece from a deep well of personal resentment experience. In my recent interview with him, he expressed how “when you’re dealing with actors who came out of the theatre and are now famous, they tend to wax poetic about how much theatre means to them. And while it is definitely heartfelt and true, it still doesn’t change the fact that that love of theatre is in no way in sync with the realities of actually doing it.”

The process of making theatre, though collaborative and creative, requires hard work, planning, focus and quick decision making. Hollywood spectacle and Chicago “get-‘er-done” do not blend. Epic ideas, such as the many Johnny throws out during 11 hour rehearsals, are well and good, but you better have a plan (and budget) for putting them in action and seeing them through.

On the flipside, while a satire, there are some implicit themes here about the problem with so many struggling non-equity theatre companies — they don’t have an aspiration. They just want to do plays that speak to them as artists, without thinking of expanding their audience or, more basically, planning for the future. As douchey as Johnny is, his mind’s in the right place: let’s do this show so we can make money and Havoc can thrive!

However, the means to achieve this end is where the comedy happens. The show is filled with wit (and the cast is up to the challenge), but it also needs to be whittled down a bit. Several rehearsal room scenes kept repeating the same “actors struggling with vague direction” bit, and the final moments of the play seemed to slap Chicago theatre in the face by implying that you’re only a success if your production makes it to Broadway. How do we define successful theatre in Chicago terms?

But, still, a very fun homage to the wacky and singular world of Chicago theatre.

“Johnny Theatre” plays through May 12. More info here >

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