Review The Brightest Thing in the World by About Face Theatre—Realism to the Point of Cringe

Romance is difficult enough in real life, but it’s damn-near impossible on the stage. Balancing the fictive chemicals of genuine-seeming attraction is a science to challenge our best artists. Success is plausibility: these people could be in love. But it’s no easy feat. And in The Brightest Thing in the World, being staged now by About Face Theatre, playwright Leah Nanako Winkler, director Keira Fromm, and actors Claire Kaplan and Jojo Brown fail to reach that bar.

The play begins in a Kentucky bakery where employee Lane, played with preternatural cuteness by Claire Kaplan, tries to break the reserve of her obvious crush and frequent patron Steph, played by Jojo Brown. In a series of brief scenes Lane makes increasingly transparent pleas for Steph’s attention. As the two get more comfortable they talk about dietary restrictions, Lexington, books everyone reads. And it’s all so . . . regular. So unexceptional.

Claire Kaplan, Jojo Brown and Cyd Blakewell. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

When Lane discovers Steph is on a diet, she cries, “Milk is amazing. Nutrients are amazing. Food is good for you!” Trying to flirt, Steph says, “It’s getting hot outside.” About social media, Lane says, “I deleted all that shit years go and my self-esteem has skyrocketed.”

I enjoy slice-of-life stories as much as the next guy, but I recognize the best ones have concessions to heightened reality. When a grounded story produces normal-seeming people talking about normal-seeming things, one wonders if the writer has anything to say.

In the play’s opening scenes, rather than discovering the music in ordinary conversation, I fear Winkler has just reminded us how regular speech, when copied, comes out full of cliches and lame jokes and, quite frankly, isn’t fit for the stage. The dialogue left me with the uncomfortable feeling of hearing myself on a recording. “Do I really sound like that?”

Whatever sparks of chemistry the actors could conjure are dampened by this wet blanket of a script. It doesn’t help that Jojo Brown appears choppy and unrehearsed, with the slow speech of someone trying to remember what they should say.

The play improves when it drops the get-to-know-you stuff and explores the characters more deeply. They develop a romance, and in the course of their partnership conceal and reveal their deepest secrets. The play shines when Steph and Lane debate politics and explore their struggles as lesbians.

Lane shares a story about a time she was in a gun debate with a guy: “And when he saw that I was right, he goes . . . Huh. You’re actually right. It had that same tone of guys saying you’re actually pretty funny. Or you’re actually pretty smart. It’s like he actually couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe that I would know something he didn’t.”

These exchanges are funny, insightful. They further a point of view, which piqued my interest far more than the romantic comedy bits. Unfortunately, though, the play misses opportunities to be more overtly political. The story takes place in 2016. And despite a few references to the year, there is very little mention of the historical significance of its time period, Which feels like a mistake.

Jojo Brown and Claire Kaplan. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Brightest Thing in the World also shoots its own foot with a series of what the script calls, “fragmented and out of time visual/theatrical moments.” I would call them transitions, but script asked me not to.

Between several scenes we’re given transitions—or fragmented and out of time visual/theatrical moments—where the grounded play dips in the abstract. Characters cross the stage in a dream state and repeat ominous words while flower petals fall from the ceiling. It’s such a bizarre tonal shift that almost made me rethink the earlier awkwardness.

Was the too-familiar flirting supposed to represent a super-normality that the show undercuts with surrealism? In other words, are they pulling a David Lynch?

I’m not so quick to give the play that much credit.

People who are ready to luxuriate in melodrama will have a pleasant evening, no doubt. The play’s ending has plenty of screaming matches, breakdowns, broken hearts. Admittedly, there were more than a few watery eyes in the crowd. And if I hadn’t already been so put off by the sloppy start and tonal shifts, I may have choked up myself.

The Brightest Thing in the World by About Face Theatre continues at the Den Theater at 1331 N Milwaukee Ave, thru April 13. Running time is 1 hour 40 minutes without an intermission. AFT uses a ticket system wherein patrons can decide the amount they can afford to pay. Recommended ticket prices range from $5 to $35.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Adam Kaz