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Theater Review:

Famous Door Theatre’s "A GOING CONCERN" at The Theatre Building

BY LUCIA MAURO

There are elements of far-reaching wisdom in British playwright Stephen Jeffreys’ "A Going Concern," receiving its American premiere by Famous Door Theatre Company at The Theatre Building. Set in the Chapel family’s custom-billiards business in 1966 London, the drama explores volatile generation gaps and the onslaught of high-tech mass production.

One of the sons stresses, with a tinge of sarcasm, how the Chapel’s are "ground-floor people." They wish to remain in a solid place near customers with whom they’ve developed personal relationships. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a swank – and unanchored -- high-rise. Another scene has the patriarch lecturing about the importance of "working with the wood, not against it" when polishing a table. Both dramatically insightful moments illustrate the struggles that ensue when "progress" removes artisans from the essence of their craft and destroys family members at odds with each other’s disparate belief systems.

Had Jeffreys consistently given us scenes of such delicately shaped profundity, "A Going Concern" could have been a provocative theater experience capable of plunging audiences into gnawing moral dilemmas. But the playwright -- who based this work on his family’s 100-year-old Jeffreys Brothers Billiards business – loses sight of his story’s layered urgency. The characters are too detached from each other to make this feel like a family drama, and any schemes to resurrect or sink the firm are so scattered they become irrelevant.

In the play, middle-aged brothers Gordon and Jack conspire to drive the company’s main shareholder – their stubborn and ruthless father – into retirement. Meanwhile, Gordon’s rebellious son Tony plans to take the business to a level of cost-effective mass production but unintentionally drives his own father out of the fold. Workhorse Jack sees his life’s "accomplishments" crumble around him, realizing that his son David would rather read poetry than build a pool table from scratch.

Also in the mix are Barry, an enigmatic long-time employee and shareholder who secretly cares more about his music than billiard tables; Ray, a hard-drinking, womanizing employee; and Vicky, the accountant who must negotiate her discovery of discrepancies in the Chapel’s books and an unexpected affair with Tony.

Family codes of behavior are perpetually discussed but, ironically, it’s a believable family connection that’s lacking in Jeffreys’ script. After a while, it’s hard to care about these sour-pussed men making puffed-up statements about duty and fear of change. Although the stagnating business is the catalyst for the play’s conflict, the growing high-tech nature of the market is never effectively explored. And the characters are too one-dimensional and disagreeable to illuminate the deeper theme of familial resentment and power plays.

Despite the script’s flaws, director Karen Kessler draws compelling performances from her cast. Roderick Peeples tragically unpeels Jack’s sense of worthlessness within the realm of nose-to-the-grindstone productivity and responsibility. Dan J. Rivkin as Gordon is Peeples’ high-strung but cowardly counterpart. And Robert Scogin as the elder Chapel reveals smatterings of quiet benevolence underneath his back-stabbing drive for self-preservation.

Brad Johnson powerfully demonstrates Tony’s shifting ambition and self-doubt; Steve Schine maintains a stingingly baffling suspense as the hard-to-read Barry; Drew Vidal handles the inadequate David with grace and sympathy; Kathleen Logelin’s Vicky convincingly combines neatly pressed integrity with aching vulnerability; and Patrick New deserves credit for turning the brashly chauvinistic Ray into a likeable fellow.

Peter Beudert’s artistically dusty and distressed warehouse set, coupled with Michelle Caplan’s real billiard-table materials, most poignantly gives audiences a glimpse of the craftsmanship that will soon be lost to an increasingly mechanized society.•

Famous Door Theatre Company’s production of "A Going Concern" runs through Aug. 5 at The Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets: $23-$28. Call 773-327-5252.

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