Jason Wells is a brave playwright. Think of the chaos happening in the Middle-East: ordinary citizens empowered to topple tyrannical regimes—vive la revolutoion! Isn’t it funny that we think ourselves so safe behind our government and our constitution and a few good men? We might panic when the market tanks, or debate endlessly whether our standard of living will ever recover to its fabled perfection before the recession, but no one ever talks about our government falling. What—a bunch of rednecks are going to get together with their 12-gages and ’38 revolvers and… take Washington? The notion is absurd.
And of course, perfect, for a play. With his childlike, sadistic sense of humor this horror is what Jason Wells has taken on with The North Plan, which is currently receiving its inaugural Chicago staging at Theater Wit, directed by Kimberly Senior. The country is in chaos. Washington is under siege. Opposing forces face off on Pennsylvania Avenue. And here we are, in a tiny police station in Lodus, Missouri.
The action is triggered by Carlton (Kevin Stark), a former employee of the now defunct US Department of State, who claims to be in possession of a black list of artists, journalists, and other subversives that the evil new regime plans to round up to arrest or execute. Carlton is being held without charge in the Lodus police station, and spends the first act trying to convince everyone there— Tanya (Kate Buddeke), a redneck prisoner who turned herself in for drunk driving; the kindly, Old West sheriff, er, police chief (Will Zahrn); and Shonda (Lucy Sandy), the “administrative officer” in charge of watching the prisoners—to let him go so that he can get the information to his accomplice and save the legitimate government.
Tanya, who is brought to life flawlessly (and crassly) by Buddeke, is the perfect obstacle for Carlton. She’s just trying to get out of jail and go home and at the beginning of the play has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot but she steals the entire scene and stops talking maybe twice in the whole act. Tanya’s the kind of authentic American white-trash you never can find except in a place like Lodus, the kind of person you want to punch in the face.
The first act is cute. You’re vaguely interested in the conspiracy. You’re annoyed by all the characters (in a good way). You’re sort of excited to come back after intermission.
The second act is comic dynamite. The style turns on a dime. What was a somewhat realistic thriller, becomes a down and out farce as two Department of Homeland Security strongmen (Tom Hickey and Brian King) arrive to interrogate Carlton. This act is all slapstick and physical comedy as Shonda, Tanya, and the police chief start to stand up to the evil DHS agents.
I can’t say too much about this or I’ll ruin it for you, but there is a phenomenal scene in here that lasts for about 45 minutes all building a single joke. The laughs didn’t stop once. It’s pulling off that kind of scene that really makes you think director Kimberly Senior is a rock star. She can put together these truly incredible sustained builds. You keep thinking that it cannot get any more tense, and then it does, and then it does again. Hickey and King make the perfect incompetent and ruthless bad guys. King in particular steals the show as the sidekick who yearns to take a bigger role, asking his partner to say “we, not I.”
The other cool thing about this play is that at its heart, The North Plan is a Western. There is something about Americans that can’t get over underdogs, cowboys, small town justice, and shootouts. The American Dream in modern society seems like an airy lie perpetuated by god knows who to give us all false hope of advancement and prosperity and happiness. Once, maybe, in the time of the revolution, and the frontier, and the fact that America was this great experiment, the first democracy, the first free country, maybe then the American Dream was real. But certainly not today. We crave adventure and individuality. That’s why you get hipsters who only like bands that no one else knows, and twentysomethings who make plans to survive the imminent zombie apocalypse. The North Plan speaks to that craving too, and carries an unusual, apt resonance with all the laughs.