Monday, March 8, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: Pretty Penny at the Right Brain Project

So to be clear about one thing: this isn't an official review. Randall Colburn, who wrote Pretty Penny, currently getting its world premiere at The Right Brain Project is a friend of mine: he won DrekFest, the annual contest for the most intentionally terrible play in America, at Stage Left in 2009, and we've gotten to know each other since. So while it opened a few weeks ago, when I was out of town, I was very pleased to have the chance to see Pretty Penny as a member of the press on Friday night. Some thoughts:

Early in the second act, when things have already gotten pretty complicated, one character cautions another "Don't let it get real." But of course she already has, and will only go further. Things getting real is the idea of the play--the attraction of masks and alternate identities, the power wielded through sex and lies, and the seduction and danger of breaking those barriers. The complexities of sex and identity in the modern age are dramatized with some frequency, but rarely with such intelligence, maturity, and fearless willingness to investigate consequences without sensationalizing.

The play is about Vick (Katy Albert, doing exceptionally assured work in her Chicago debut) who takes a job as an operator on a no-taboo phone sex line. Jerry (Josh Sumner), the owner, represents her phone identity, "Penny," with pictures he took of Crystal (Susan Myburgh), now a successful model, ten years before. Crystal and her boyfriend Tommy (Nick Mikula) find out, and both get very interested in Penny. Add in an obsessed caller (Buck Zachary), pining for his own missed chances, and a potential real-life date Vick keeps standing up (Stephen Gawrit), and things get really strange.

The play is structured in isolated scenes, and doesn't concern itself with matters of backstory--we never learn why Vick chose to work on a phone sex line or anything about her background and life, for instance. It trusts the audience to fill in the gaps and gives us enough to keep us totally engrossed. In this it's well matched with Robbel's production: the Right Brain Project's space is quite small, and there's just one row of benches surrounding the space on all four sides. Robbel dispenses with props and all sets but a few pieces of furniture, (mime supervisor Elizabeth Bagby makes it look completely natural) and the result is a microscopic focus on the characters and their behavior that pays off exceptionally well. He's also guided the actors to extremely strong, believable work, with Albert the first among equals.

Make no mistake, this is rough stuff. It's very funny and sharp at the beginning, but as the characters get more involved and desperate, it gets intensely uncomfortable--there are two scenes in the second act that had me squirming in my seat. And of course, it doesn't shy from sexual content, of fun and distressing varieties.

But it's not exploitative in any way--Colburn isn't rubbing our noses in depravity, just showing us real people in real situations. It's not a perfect play--I'm not sure the ending worked for me--but it's exceptionally strong, always fascinating to watch, and getting a first-rate production.  It's only running two more weeks, and I highly recommend a trip to see it. But if you miss it, all is not lost--the company is doing another of Colburn's plays, Hesperia, come summer. I'll certainly be there.

Pretty Penny runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 7 PM through March 20th at the Right Brain Project, 4001 N Ravenswood. Reservations highly recommended, call 773-750-2033 or email More information here.


Nathan R said...

Thanks for the kind words, Zev. This show is quite near and dear to me. Thanks for pimping it!

Zev Valancy said...

You realize now that Hesperia has to be just as good because I have high expectations, right?

Nathan R. said...

I accept your challenge!