UMA productions current run of Obie award-winning playwright Rinne Groff’s Orange Lemon Egg Canary reminds one of Dan Savage’s syndicated Savage Love columns. While there’s no Zoophilia or appearances from Cirque du Soleil trained midgets, the play is a full on mélange of sex, intrigue, deception, love triangles, sharp knives, and magic. It’s also a bit of train wreck, a twofold amalgamation of unspeakable horror and utterly engrossing spectacle.
Let us start with the horrors. Groff’s play tells the tale of Great, a magician inspired by his grandfather’s trick where an orange is peeled to reveal a lemon within, and when the lemon peel is removed, an egg is discovered inside. The egg is then smashed and a live canary emerges. The trick is a metaphor for many layered central focus of the play which examines Great’s budding love affair with a new assistant Trilby, who also happens to be the current love of Great’s ex-love and assistant China, aka Egypt, who was once hurt while performing Great’s central trick, the Hypnotic Balance, and who is now seeking revenge against her lover.
If you’re not already confused, Groff alternates the scenes featuring Great and Trilby’s relationship with noirish cabaret-style appearances from the ghost of Henrietta, a woman who was once Great’s grandather’s assistant, who also happened to perish while performing the Hypnotic Balance. Oh, and Trilby, in her best Haley Joel Osment impersonation, can communicate with Henrietta.
Groff’s alternating structure takes all of the momentum out the play. Just as a conflict or a resolution arises between Great and Trilby, the audience is jostled by the appearance of Henrietta’s ghost. Furthermore, the entire script is a heavy-handed examination of modern romance as told through the prism and metaphor of magic. The deception of a magical illusion is a cheap stand in for the lies told by lovers. The central trick of the play, the Hypnotic Balance, a hideously sharp spike on which the female assistants are perched is the most overtly phallic stand-in for simulated sex since Bill Clinton’s cigar.
At their best, most of the actor’s performances, like Dennis Watkins’s Great are middle of the road and at their worst reflect Laura Hooper’s melodramatically hysterical Trilby. Regarding the engrossing spectacle part of things, it may be that the performers are not so bad, just that Anne Adams’s fabulously hyper-sexualized Henrietta is an unfair contrast. Adams’s performance borrows a bit from the bad kitten routine of Sally Bowles character in Cabaret, and relies on a mesmerizing hypnotic constant eye lock with the audience. Adams is a bonafide star who deserves a bigger stage.
And while Watkins’s dramatic performance is so/so, his chops as a magician are pretty good. While most of his audience is at most ten feet away, Watkins manages to conceal his magical conceits, an assortment of card tricks, coin vanishings, and swordplay, well.
Also, the simple scenic design a red velvet curtain-lined affair with intimate in-the-round café-style seating aptly conjures the ambience of a small magic club.
While confusing, poorly structured, and heavily written, Adams’s performance and Watkins’s magic resurrect things so that ultimately the production is entertaining and worth the $20 dollar ticket.
Orange Lemon Egg Canary runs through May 18th at the Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets can be purchased online at www.umaproductions.com, or by calling 773-347-1375.
This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com