Failure: A Love Story Review - A Strange but Moving Tale

“Just because something ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great success,” says John N. Fail (Michael Salinas) midway through the play.  So much of life, in fact all of life, ends.  And much of it ends poorly.  The 1920s, the 1969 Cubs, and the Bush presidency all ended rather spectacularly bad.  But does it mean that it was always a failure?  And what does it say about our society that we celebrate golden wedding anniversaries so fiercely but never mention the what-could-have-been?  It is safe to say that for every couple happily married fifty years there are several more persons who have been grieving their loved one for just as long.  Those are just of some of the themes touched upon in Philip Dawkins unique and often moving play Failure: A Love Story (directed by Seth Brockley).

Failure: A Love Story

Set at the edge of the Chicago River during the twilight of the Flapper Era, Failure tells the odd and curious happenings of the Fail sisters.  Minutes into the play the audience is told that in 1928 all three of the Fail sisters perish (by blunt object, by disappearance, and by consumption).   The sisters are played as innocent and full of life (Baize Buzan as Nelly Fail), with spunk (Emjoy Gavino as Jenny June Fail), and with a sense of stoic purpose (Mildred Marie Langford as Gertrude Fail).  We are also quickly told that within the Fail family death is not unique to the sisters as their parents tragically perished years before their daughters.   But the Fail family is not only one of tragedy, it also one of brilliant luck and success as evident by their thriving clock shop and their odd and deep feeling brother who has a love for animals (a brother gained quite biblically as he was evidently set down the river by his birth parents and then recovered by the Fail family).  This backstory takes some time to set up, but is narrated quite well by Guy Massey and Janet Ulrick Brooks.  Entering this family of sisters, one adopted brother, and a lot of animals is Mortimer Mortimer (Matt Fletcher).   Mortimer is a self-assured man with a keen business sense and a wish to find a wife.  This wish propels all of the action of the play and ultimately results in the untimely deaths of all three sisters.

The Chorus: Guy Massey and Janet Ulrich Brooks

Michael Salinas and Guy Massey

The beauty and charm of Failure is that this rather simple story is told quite elegantly.  At various times the actors become animals, furniture, radios and gramophones, and clocks, lots and lots of clocks.  They also play several instruments including piano, oboe, accordion, and percussion and sing several period songs with the hauntingly beautiful and foreboding lyrics “I can’t give you anything but love” repeatedly interjected during key scenes.  The play even makes time for Matt Fletcher (in what was probably the funniest moment of the play) to sing a jealous ode to his nemesis, Olympic swimmer and Hollywood star Johnny Weissmuller.   At critical times the characters also engage in classic Hollywood fast banter, the type of talk that is often dizzying to keep up with. Under Seth Brockley’s direction, none of this ever feels gimmicky or distracting.   A lot is packed into this one act play but everything is packed well and it is truly a wonder to behold. 

Emjoy Gavino (Jenny June Fail), Guy Massey (Chorus), and Michael Salinas (John N. Fail)

Emjoy Gavino and Janet Ulrich Brooks (Chorus)

Like life itself Failure is not perfect.  Instead of trusting the audience to make connections, Phillip Dawkins often hammers them into the consciousness of the play.  It could have also used a few more laughs.  But Failure:  A Love Story is a clear success in terms of its creative meditation on life, failure, and love. 

Matt Fletcher (Mortimer Mortimer), Mildred Marie Langford (Gertrude Fail), and Janet UIrich Brooks

Bottom Line:  Failure:  A Love Story is highly recommended and is currently playing at Victory Gardens (2433 N. Lincoln) through December 30, 2012.  To purchase tickets or for more information, go to victorygardens.org   For more theater reviews, go to theaterinchicago.com

Photos by:  Michael Brosilow

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