at the Windy City Playhouse
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Windy City Playhouse is a comfortable, intimate theater and it is appropriate that it presents comfortable, intimate plays like its current attraction, a romantic comedy called “Apartment 3A.” It’s not a great play but it’s entertaining and best of all it treats the audience to a terrific performance by Eleni Pappageorge.
“Apartment 3A” is a 1996 play by Jeff Daniels, best known as a stage and motion picture actor but also the operator of the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan, and the author of nine plays for his theater. This is my first exposure to a Daniels play but if it is typical his work, he has a talent for creating likable characters, offbeat situations, and agreeably happy endings.
The focal point of “Apartment 3A” is Annie Wilson, a thirty-something woman we first meet finalizing the rental of apartment 3A in a rundown area in an unnamed Midwestern city. Annie is not in good emotional shape. She’s just split from her boyfriend after catching him en flagrante with another woman. She wants to be alone with her misery but almost immediately her apartment space is invaded by Donald, her neighbor from apartment 3B, a breezy married man whose wife is off in Europe, leaving him with lots of time on his hands.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Donald and Annie form a friendly relationship, but the serious romance comes from Elliot, her co-worker at the local PBS television station where Annie works as a fundraiser. Elliot is a young man for whom the word “nice” must have been invented. He carries a large torch for Annie, who will have none of him except as a colleague at the TV station. But the affable, adoring Elliot still has his hopes.
“Apartment 3A” is a blend of romance, religious debate, and fantasy (the fantasy part can’t be explained to preserve the play’s startling plot twist at the end). Daniels has written his play as a string of set pieces rather than a continuous narrative. There is a long scene at the end of the first act in which Elliot and Annie argue over whether or not there is a God. Elliot, almost apologetically, states that he is a Catholic. Annie is a rock-ribbed nonbeliever. Their debate is a rehash of all the pros and cons concerning whether God exists, but Elliot and Annie pump a lot of energy and conviction into their opposing stands.
Annie’s job as a PBS fundraiser opens the way for two funny scenes in which she beseeches the viewers to donate money to keep the PBS station solvent. She goes so far as to threaten that if sufficient cash wasn’t forthcoming from the viewers, “Sesame Street” would go off the air and Big Bird will die, the death sentence announcement throwing the station manager into a conniption fit.
That’s enough about the play’s rather porous plot. The big news is the performance by Eleni Pappageorge. The other characters in the play, all male, are pretty two-dimensional compared to Annie. Pappageorge crawls inside Annie’s skin, ringing all the changes on a character who is feisty, desperate, erotic, and resistant to romantic commitment yet throwing herself into an afternoon of sex with Elliot that is hot, hot, hot. Life has dealt Annie some hard knocks recently, making her wary of relationships and the motives of people who want to get close to her. She wants to protect her space but she’s vulnerable to the contrasting personalities of the urbane Donald and the eager beaver Elliot. Pappageorge is on stage virtually the entire play and I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she morphed through Annie’s complicated set of emotions. Chicagoland theaters need to find worthy roles for this lady.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Daniel Smith is persuasive as Donald, at first a guy we think is in the play to hit on Annie in her loneliness. But he actually plays a considerably different role, as we learn at the end of the play. Jose Garcia is an endearing Elliot with an innocent charm that encourages us to root for him in his seemingly futile quest for Annie’s affection. Still, in a play anything can happen. Peter DeFaria makes a strong impression in his few scenes as Annie’s foul-mouthed new landlord and Wardell Julius Clark has a couple of funny cameos as the blustering TV station manager.
Ron OJ Parson, who has built a directorial reputation for strong and gritty plays, shows a deft touch in guiding his cast though a script that is basically a sitcom. Jacqueline Penrod designed a minimalist set that smoothly shifts among offices, apartments, the TV studio and a restaurant, abetted by Jared Gooding’s atmospheric lighting. Eric Backus designed the sound and Kristy Leigh Hall the costumes. Rachel Flesher is credited as fight choreographer. There are no fights in the play so the credit must refer to the evocations of gymnastic sex between Annie and Elliot on and off stage that are funny and credible.
The Windy City Playhouse opened in March 2015 as something new in local theater. It’s located well outside Chicago’s various entertainment areas and it seats its audiences in comfortable easy chairs with tables at hand to place drinks available in the lobby. The venue is made for plays like “Apartment 3A,” with a basic single set and a small ensemble. The theater’s technical facilities are limited but the configuration of the playing space invites a connection between viewer and performer. The play has its clichés and wears its touchy feely nature on its sleeve but it’s a pleasurable 2 hours and 20 minutes for viewers who enjoy the company of pleasant non-threatening characters and happy endings.
“Apartment 3A” runs through December 18 at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 West Irving Park Road. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $55. Call 773 891 8985 or visit http://windycityplayhouse.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com October 2016
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