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Theater Review:

"TEN PERCENT OF MOLLY SNYDER," The Garage at Steppenwolf


Bureaucratic pencil pushers and their skill at erasing everyone’s humanity (including their own) have been a favorite topic of writers, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Charles Dickens and his joyless accountants and tax collectors come immediately to mind. So Richard Strand’s functionary-themed satire, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" – receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage – cannot be singled out for its originality.

But his play does offer moments of crisp comedy and a thriller-like domino effect of mishaps that get set into motion when the titular Molly – a visual artist concerned with the "centrality of spirituality" -- goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles to fix an address typo on her license and systematically gets the life force sucked out of her. The nondescript white-male bureaucrat (played with dull, emphatic monotony by Troy West) looks the same to Molly even if he insists that he’s another race or a woman.

After Molly’s transposed address requires her to fill out a form that could take years to process, she tries to move on with her life – only to open the newspaper and read her own obituary, the result of another deadly typo. More a case of absent identity than mistaken identity, Molly’s saga across the drably identical offices of a bureaucratic Beelzebub ultimately drives her to a drastic act that sends her to Death Row. In the end, the playwright has Molly and the man change places almost supernaturally – reminiscent of horror films (like "Trilogy of Terror") in which evil seeps into the body of some poor noble soul.

While Strand can be criticized for his easily spoofable subject matter and his tendency to beat an already emotionally dead bureaucratic horse to death, the major flaw in this play is his imploding finale. Strand’s writing is sharp and lively, and he aptly conveys the horrifying notion of our lives awkwardly squeezed into a tiny form to be filled out – not to mention the acquired emotional vacancy of company drones.

But the playwright over-sells his theatrical product. Ideally, the play should end after Molly is driven to an act of uncontrollable rage, only to discover her own absurd error. Instead the play keeps descending farther down the icy rungs of hellish officialdom. The final twist is confusing and anti-climactic.

Edward Sobel, however, directs this 70-minute comedy with emotional care despite its rapid-fire pace. Amy Warren’s embattled Molly maintains a pleasantly quirky and hopeful disposition even as she becomes the very thing she abhors. Although his multiple bureaucratic characters consciously keep missing the point, West never loses steely focus.

David Wolf’s comfortable but creepy generic office set, placed in the glare of Michelle M. Habeck’s fluorescent lighting, reminds us of every inhuman encounter we’ve experiences at some point in our lives -- from mortgage companies and law firms to the dean’s office and hospitals. Rachel Anne Healy’s cartoon-colorful costumes for the free-spirited Molly are offset by the man’s dour dark-suited uniform; and Lindsay Jones’ broken-record sound design loudly illustrates the nails-against-a-blackboard monotony.•

"Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" runs through June 24 at The Garage at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. Tickets: $10. Call 312-335-1650.

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