ARTS

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October 31, 2008

Absurdist Thugs not afraid of the dark

In an age when Steve Carrell is a comedic king, the typical business office now seems like a natural theatrical setting. But the office setting is put to new use in Profiles Theatre’s The Thugs, a play driven by mystery, murder, and a whole lot of fragmented sentences.

To treat the last first, Thugs’ dialogue moves at a rapid pace and is given to incomplete thoughts. An exchange of phrases like “Yup,” “No,” “Sorry,” and “Right” could last up to two minutes, which was both hilarious and perhaps indicative of the playwright Adam Bock’s absurdist sympathies. Without pushing the issue, Thugs’ plot is designed to point out the absurd value our society places on work, rather than on individuals.

The play opens with the mounting tensions of a group of temps in a law office, working on what the character Elaine calls “the dumbest case ever. Dumb with a capital ‘D’ dumb.” As they go through their day’s work, fear escalates about a number of people who have died in the building within the last few weeks. In a typical tone for the piece, this information in revealed after ten minutes of fragmented interruptions that make up daily office life. A temp named Bart walks in and says, “Somebody’s been killing people in the building. Does anyone have any gum?”

The drama builds from there as we learn more about the different office workers and the power dynamics that govern their daily lives. These workplace dynamics are called into question as fears over the killings mount, and it seems that obeying the boss’s orders to stay in the office might mean death. Although the question raised in the play about the relative value of workers as people certainly relates to everyday life, after the question’s setup point, the play seems to lag a bit. The play’s focus is split between the characters’ personal dramas and the rumors of murder. The characters’ fear of death seems unfounded and becomes almost tedious--all the audience hears are a few eerie sound effects from offstage—until Bock plays his trump card.

All of a sudden, everything goes black—not just a soft light, or a gradual dimming of the stage lights. The characters are terrified, but I wasn’t worried about them because I was too scared for myself. The murderer, who, under stage lights, seemed too unsubstantiated to motivate the play, in the dark becomes so real that you start believing someone in the front row might get axed by mistake.

This particular ploy of Bock’s saved the play. Time seems to fly until the end of the play, in part because sharing in the characters’ fears engrosses the audience, and in part because the play ended without completing the typical story arc. I had the feeling that a third act, filled with plot resolutions, was somewhere in limbo, but those resolutions never made it to the stage.

Nevertheless, The Thugs proved enjoyable overall. Bock’s distinctive tone lent a humorous and almost zany feel to the office setting. The ensemble performs well; the characters serve as nice foils to one another, and the actors feed off each others’ energy to heighten the dramatic tension. In some ways, the rough edges of the play’s formal composition are endearing.

This is the play’s first Midwest premier, directed by Joe Jahraus, after its original production in Soho in New York in 2006. Profile Theater’s mission is to produce plays, often by up-and-coming playwrights, for their U.S., world, or Midwest premieres. To this end, The Thugs should be appreciated for its personal style that affords a unique experience only found in a small storefront theater on the North Side. And who knows—maybe if you go to a different production, the murderer will trip in the dark and cause some more personal dramatic complications.