New Country at the Den Theatre is great entertainment before or after a dinner at one of Wicker Park’s many Milwaukee Avenue restaurants. It’s a short, snappy comedy with a human side. Written by Mark Roberts and directed by Ian Streicher, New Country stars a few well-known Chicago actors as well as Roberts himself.
The play is set in a Nashville hotel room on the night of the bachelor party for country music star Justin (played by Michael Monroe Goodman, a musician-actor who starred in the Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire, and in Million Dollar Quartet). Justin is young, successful and arrogant and he doesn’t hesitate to let his managers know who’s boss. His beloved pig-farmer Uncle Jim (Roberts) arrives to join the celebration, full of country jokes, and accompanied by his blow-up sex toy, Wanda June.
Justin’s record label managers are there for the great event and to serve as groomsmen. Paul (Frank Nall) tries to keep the people and event organized, including calming the anxious bride on the phone. Chuck, the A&R man (Will Clinger) can’t get beyond the fact that he’s stuck marching down the aisle with the wrong sister.
When the others leave to begin the celebration, Uncle Jim stays behind to rest. He sighs and tells his troubles to Wanda June in a touching monologue about his life.
“Man I was had a beautiful, bright-white smile, conveyin’ confidence, ambition and a future filled with possibilities…. I had eyes the bluest of blue, that sparkled in the sun and viewed the world as a joyous, wondrous playground, filled with all the promises of God. (Pause) But, shit happens, my dear. Twenties give way to thirties, thirties blend into your forties, forties melt into fifties and the rest is just a series of five-year blinks all the way to the fuckin’ grave.”
Roberts has a long resume in comedy, theater and TV. His comedy chops are evident in the fast-paced dialogue throughout New Country. But this isn’t a 90-minute sit-com. New Country gradually unveils the stories, sometimes poignant, sometimes mean, of several of the characters. It’s raucous comedy with a heart.
Alone with his memories, Uncle Jim despairs and contemplates suicide. The door bursts open and he’s interrupted by Sharon, Justin’s ex-fiancée, a Nashville police officer and military veteran. She’s dressed in leather jacket and jeans and carries a motorcycle helmet. Sarah Lemp, as Sharon, brings life and energy to the room. She’s come to the wedding to confront Justin and demand he acknowledge her contributions to his career.
“I taught that son of a bitch everything. How to shoot, shit, fight, fuck and bake banana bread. I fed him, tended him, babied him and gave him seven years of my life. Only to get lied to, cheated on and tossed aside like a used rubber on prom night.”
It was Uncle Jim who taught him to play guitar (“first three chords he ever learned”). Unfortunately we don’t get to hear Justin perform and that’s a shame because Goodman is a talented musician.
New Country is fast-paced and funny and offers insights into the lives of three of the characters: Justin, Sharon and Uncle Jim. All three performances are excellent. Veteran Chicago actors Nall and Clinger are terrific in their record-guy roles. Oh, and I almost forgot Ollie (Colter O’Ryan Smith), the bellboy with musical aspirations (and a demo CD). Director Streicher has done a great job in keeping the action moving and the timing spot-on.
Kevin Hagan’s set design is a replica of a fine Music City hotel suite and Rachel Lambert’s western-wear suits fit the bill. Uncle Jim’s orange Crocs complete his outfit of baggy trousers and road-show vest, covered with badges.
Where does the title come from? Uncle Jim explains his favorite music. “No favorites, just anything by Hank Senior. See, I like old country. Everything new is shit.”
Fair Trade Productions is a new producing company for Chicago. Its principals are Roberts, Streicher and producers Chuck Gessert and Kelcie Beene. Roberts says he considers New Country to be the start of the company’s artistic investment in Chicago. “The talent here is something special,” he says, “full of actors and artists I’ve wanted to work with for years.”
Roberts is best-known for his work as head wrier and producer on Two and a Half Men, and as creator and show-runner on Mike and Molly. He also has written half a dozen other plays, including Rantoul or Die and Paradise Drag.
A caveat for sensitive theatergoers. New Country is vulgar—very funny but vulgar. Uncle Jim tells dirty jokes, and the dialogue is laced with four-letter words and other vulgarities. In one scene, Sharon inspects Wanda June and says, “Jesus. Perfect woman though, right? No brains or heart to speak of. Just two holes, no parents, periods or problems.”
New Country continues through May 14 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday. You can buy tickets online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.