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Theater Review:

Steep Theatre Company’s "SEARCH AND DESTROY" at Chopin Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Nihilism wrapped around a skewed Horatio Alger myth has a tendency to gnaw on viewers’ consciences in Howard Korder’s "Search and Destroy," a disturbing ode to amorality. The playwright strips the American ideal, Manifest Destiny, of its idealistic grandeur and unveils the nation-wide hypocritical haze that keeps most people "content" in their material success.

It’s a devastating premise capable of plunging audiences into a state of exasperated futility. On the other hand, it’s a pungent reminder of the soul-deadening effects of quick fixes and rampant materialism.

Yet what appears to be a heavy-handed dissection of a collectively misguided value system also falls victim to showing only superficial snippets of corruption. "Search and Destroy," while it brutally exposes the sham of being rewarded for working hard, gets choked by its own cliched sensationalism. It consists of the usual suspects for an action-adventure story and heads in the predictable direction of a drug deal gone bad. It also suffers from the gratuitous inclusion of undeveloped characters and implausible plot advancements.

But Steep Theatre Company, a new troupe embarking on its second show, features some impressively eviscerating performances in its production of "Search and Destroy" at Chopin Theatre. Director Joshua Polster draws out the play’s empty horrors in a stark, dismal setting that creates a devastating sense of alienation. Yet awkward pacing – exacerbated by cumbersome scene changes – threatens to literally alienate audiences who might grow impatient from the long pauses and lack of flow.

So the experience veers from enthralling to boring to soul-deadening to thought-provoking.

"Search and Destroy" tracks the obsessive quest of self-delusional movie producer Martin Mirkheim to obtain the rights to a cultish motivational author-speaker’s book about one man’s discovery of "the pathway to hope, power and material gain." Facing a costly divorce and an IRS audit, Martin gets sucked into the pseudo-empowering platitudes of the deranged Dr. Waxling, whose book – "Daniel Strong" – centers on a young man’s mega-confidence boost after he kills his father. This demented hero worship sets the tone for Korder’s play.

Martin flings himself into a rapid downspiral, beginning with his coast-to-coast stalking of Dr. Waxling – who is intrigued by Martin’s offer to buy the rights to "Daniel Strong" but miffed when the faux producer can’t cough up a half-million dollars. Martin then seeks the help of dubious businessman, Kim, who introduces him to the drug trade. But when Martin and Kim get duped into buying a batch of cocaine that was stepped on one too many times, they get entangled in a web of violence that, ironically, culminates in a gleeful twist of fate for the seemingly gullible Martin.

More than anything else, Korder’s bleak play points out all the seedy, diabolical schemes of humankind under the guise of business or personal advancement. We meet a bunch of cold-hearted individuals constantly engaged in selling something – scripts, drugs, self-empowerment, a cushy lifestyle. And the self-interested jockeying gets hopelessly dizzying.

Korder is most successful when he unpeels the layers of linguistic nuance. Self-help catch phrases are applied to various business transactions and relationships – so that the words’ malleability creates another level of deception. The playwright’s skill wanes, however, when it comes to crafting compelling transitions and substantial supporting characters.

The women, except for Dr. Waxling’s sweetly opportunistic receptionist Marie, get shortchanged. Why, for instance, do we need to meet a cokehead campaign manager’s half-asleep wife prompted to get out of bed to check out the noise (during a drug deal) downstairs? Martin’s wife and her sister also are written as bland and insignificant stereotypes.

But Steep Theatre’s production, despite pacing flaws, is worth experiencing for the sheer depth and complexity of two performances: Peter Moore’s Martin astoundingly pairs disheveled distraction with lethal conviction; and, as Kim, Sergi Bosch’s posh and polished exterior hides a warped leviathan waiting to ensnare any weakling lured by obscene amounts of money.

One of the most telling scenes occurs when the cokehead campaign manager struggles with a slogan. Martin suggests, "Believe in Possibilities," prompting the political hack to retort, "It doesn’t mean anything; it just sounds good."

That’s the sham of a nation settled soullessly in its demoralizing comfort zone.•

Steep Theatre Company’s production of "Search and Destroy" runs through September 1 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Tickets: $12. Call 312-458-9424 or log onto www.steeptheatre.com.

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