High Life lives low

By Garth Johnston

High Life, a play which opened at the Victory Gardens Theater on Sunday, was written by Canadian actor Lee MacDougall, who, according to the press release, is “best known for originating the role of Harry in the recent North American premiere and first national tour of Mamma Mia!” The play was directed by a woman named Dado and is one that I can, with complete honesty, not recommend to single person I know…unless you’re a glutton for crap.

The Victory Gardens Theater Newsletter tells us “High Life is set in a volatile underworld, where four hardened criminals are driven by dreams of the good life to pull off what Dick, the mastermind, considers to be a foolproof bank heist. To realize his plan, Dick assembles a wildly assorted gang of characters—Bug, the psychotic killer; Donnie, the squealing hypochondriac; and Billy, the pretty boy hustler—each who will do anything for a fix. Reaching far beyond its hilariously raw wordplay, deadly roughhousing and twisted plot, High Life is so compassionately penned that audiences will find themselves believing that the sordid subculture it exposes actually seems reasonable.” The newsletter forgets to mention that High Life is also a blatant rip off of Trainspotting, Reservoir Dogs, and The Usual Suspects, with a bit of The Score thrown in for good luck. As if mixing that many movies together weren’t enough, the author adds a shadowy back-story of prison, parole, homosexuality, and AIDS. To add icing to the cake that is this play, they set it in Canada.

The play starts unusually, with the actors playing Bug (Joe Forbrich) and Dick (Brian Pudil) standing around on stage waiting for the audience to pay attention. This takes a while. They flirt, drink their beers with much gusto, argue some, and with matching square tattoos on their hands remember the good old days when they were young and high. This could have been an interesting scene. Unfortunately both actors are dreadful, and the script is worse. The story, focused on Dick’s idiotic plan and his supposedly enthralling character, is harebrained at best and derivative at worst. Dick is supposed to be an imposing character, but Pudil, dressed in Brad Pitt’s reject clothing from Fight Club, is not. For a gritty bit of realism, the audience is treated to the sight of Dick injecting morphine into his foot. It appeared as if the director was really looking to shock the spectators with this idea, but at the performance I attended, when Dick took off his blood splotched sock an old lady on the other side of the theater yawned loudly. Over the course of the play drugs are injected in thumbs, feet, legs, and arms. Drugs also get smoked, and it is implied that Donnie (Andrew Rothenberg) snorts speed before stealing from the bank. High Life also has an onstage knife-fight, a truly funny morphine-induced rodeo sequence, and occasionally the actors remember to say “about” in a funny Canadian accent.

When writing High Life it seems that MacDougall went back to that basic paper writing technique they teach you in elementary school. When writing a paper, say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you just said. In this case change the word paper to play. The first act prepares you for Dick’s plan and systematically introduces you to the characters and their personal problems. Bug is a psychopath, Donnie has a conscience and is a mess, Dick lives up to his name, and Billy (Anthony Verville), the youngest member of the gang, probably has AIDS, and has probably given it to the rest of them. The second act shows the robbery get botched as each character’s personal faults get the best of them, and then in a postscript scene we find out that the fact that the robbery got botched might be a consequence of everyone getting what they deserved. It’s almost as if the author is telling us that it’s all OK, since, y’know, boys will be boys and addicts will be addicts.

The only good part of the entire show was unfortunately a complete ripoff. Andrew Rothenberg’s performance as Donnie, though taken directly from the character Spud in Trainspotting, was so complete that it put the rest of the cast to shame. Where the other actors didn’t seem to realize that they were working with a hack script and that their characters had no depth, Rothenberg embraced the caricature he had to work with, playing up his character’s failed kidney (the other one is “hanging on by a cunt hair”), and his basic human integrity (he likes to return the wallets he steals, and only take some of the money, so as not to be a nuisance) for every laugh he could. I just wish that the show had been massively reworked to center around him, rather than Pudil.

The person with whom I saw this play was so bored and annoyed by High Life that she wanted to leave after the first act. Luckily we stayed on for the second, where we were able to witness, live and on stage, the sight of a young man walking in slow motion into a bank as that song from The Craft blasted much too loudly in our ears. Better still was the fact that the song then suddenly stopped (we were meant to be hearing the music through headphones) and turned into a Muzak version of Time after Time.

High Life is playing at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, till May 26. For tickets call (773) 871-3000 or on the web go to