Chicago loves its celebrities. Lacking the chill of our coastal peers in Los Angeles and New York, we get unabashedly stoked when fame graces us with its presence. And why not? It’s cool when the who’s who of the entertainment world spend time in the Second City, filming a new movie or headlining a few nights at Wrigley Field. Or, in the case of Rainn Wilson (best known as Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office), starring in a world premiere production of The Doppelgänger (an international farce) at Steppenwolf Theatre.
On the heels of Tracy Letts’s The Minutes, itself a timely observation of modern politics and our basest instincts, Steppenwolf keeps the high-profile productions rolling in The Doppelgänger, a modern-day satire of corruption, greed and mistaken identity written by Matthew-Lee Erlbach and directed by Tina Landau. The two-act play with one intermission clocks in at just about two and a half hours, but it moves at such a break-neck speed and delivers so many laughs per minute that it’ll feel like half that.
Wilson stars as Thomas Irdley, the British owner of extremely valuable and as-yet-untapped copper mines in the Central African Republic. He also stars as Jimmy Peterson, a quirky kindergarten teacher from Quincy, Illinois, who happens to be—you guessed it—Irdley’s doppelgänger. Irdley pops what he thinks is his blood pressure medication just as he takes a call from Jimmy; in addition to the international crowd the Irdleys (wife Theresa, played by Sandra Marquez) are expecting for the weekend, Jimmy happens to be in the country and will be stopping by too.
It’s a bit inconvenient, as Irdley has taken care to assemble a key group of ne’er-do-wells willing to collude with him on gutting the mines for all they’re worth, including: Beatrix, a British trade ambassador (Audrey Francis); Stanley, an American general turned profiteer (Michael Accardo); Wen, a Silicon Valley start-up kajillionaire (Whit K. Lee); Amir, a Saudi prince with the capital to get the whole deal going (Andy Nagraj) and his money-laundering Brazilian girlfriend Marina (Karen Rodriguez); and the former President and First Lady of CAR, Michel (James Vincent Meredith) and Lolade (Ora Jones), who would be very happy to be in power again, thankyouverymuch.
But that blood pressure medication was actually animal tranquilizers (whoops!), and Irdley is knocked out (and presumed dead!) just as Jimmy arrives. And in a moment, dutiful servant (and dedicated revolutionary) Rose (Celeste M. Cooper) conceives of a plan: Jimmy can be Irdley and convince these mercenaries to implement her labor-friendly initiatives, including harebrained ideas like living wages, safety measures and limited work hours.
As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.
And this is where The Doppelgänger really hits its stride, masterfully marrying cheeky puns and dad jokes with sharp political commentary that, often in a word or two, delivers funny-because-it’s-true belly laughs. There’s a particularly wonderful “Who’s on first?’ sequence that could have easily devolved into awkward eye-rolls and groans, but such is the comedic timing of Wilson and his cast-mates that it’s a bit of dialogue to give Abbott & Costello a run for their money.
The show not only keeps up a frenetic pace throughout (without ever feeling rushed), but it builds momentum such that as the second act reaches its peak, you can actually see the sweat on the actors’ faces as they give it their all. And none give more than Wilson, who—with the help of some fun theater tricks I won’t spoil here—switches between Jimmy and Thomas more than a few times before the lights come down on the final scene, effortlessly bouncing between accents and demeanor at a moment’s notice, depending on who he is at any given time.
It’s a performance that requires much of its star, and it’s one not to miss.
The Doppelgänger (an international farce) is now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted) has been extended through June 2. Tickets run $20-$114 and are available here.