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‘Genius’ at Profiles: Grappling with magical thinking and the harder part of being human

Submitted by on Apr 5, 2015 – 9:56 pm

Joel (Robert Breuler, right) shares some sobering realities about life with Peter (Cale Haupert) in 'Genius.' (Michael Brosilow)Review: “Genius” by Kate Walbert, world premiere at Profiles Theatre through May 3. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The mystery of genius and the frailty of ego may only appear to be separate subjects. They fuse in complicated and absorbing ways in Kate Walbert’s new play “Genius” at Profiles Theatre – a world premiere that well may be Chicago’s theatrical sleeper of the season.

Peter (Cale Haupert) wants to know if  Charlotte (Stephanie Chavara) thinks he's smart -- like really, really smart. (Michael Brosilow)In its 70-minute flight, “Genius” doesn’t attempt to explain what makes a tiny fraction of one percent of humanity magical – Leonardo’s name comes up and the music of Bach, Mozart and Ray Charles fills scene changes — in a way that even the best of the rest are not.

No, this deftly written play is about two married couples, four individual artists, all very smart people, and their hopes, commitments, disappointments and the nagging question: Could I be one of the magical few?

On this evening, in their humble Brooklyn apartment, Peter and Charlotte, twentysomething film-makers, have hosted a couple at the far end of their careers – Joel, a once-noted painter who now works as director of an art museum, and Sara, a feminist writer whose celebrity also seems to be behind her.

But Sara arrives on a mission. She has been recruited by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation to nominate someone – one of many such nominees – for the prized fellowships known popularly as “genius grants.” Sara wants to nominate these young people for their dazzling work in film, but she can only advance one name. Which of these two creative artists will she promote?

The course of true love never did run smooth, and two speed bumps (hit at rather high emotional speed) send this little get-together flying off course. Charlotte, well into her first pregnancy, is just beginning to contemplate, not cheerfully, how a bouncing baby might affect her career. And good old Joel, sloshing down his host’s Port, is reeling in a particular sort of storm over the delicately personal image he sent to a young female assistant. Can you say viral?

Joel (Robert Breuler) and Sara (Liz Zweifler) live in a marital truce that's often broken. (Michael Brosilow)Robert Breuler and Liz Zweifler make a recognizable couple in their September years, their vows of matrimony having been transcended by the bond of mutual disappointment. They’re rather like George and Martha in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”– endlessly bickering and accusing, but at the end of each long day clasping each other against the awfulness of time lost.

Breuler is brilliant as a once accomplished and admired artist who drenches his own passing in drink. Where he strode the broad avenue of success, he now lurches down the shrinking path that is life’s remnant. Was he a genius? Is he, in any meaningful sense, even still alive?

Sara, the faded writer and now to her amazement emissary of the MacArthur Foundation, finds sympathetic and deeply etched form in Zweifler. As brief scenes shift back and forth – and out of narrative sequence – between the group of four and the older couple back in their own apartment, Zweifler’s self-conscious Sara, aware of the younger woman’s fresh beauty and attracted a bit too much to the young man, steers an uneasy course at the party, then, back home, takes out her misery on her inebriated husband. Designer Michelle Lilly’s compact set and Mike Durst’s clever lighting allow the flow between spaces to work plausibly in Profiles’ tiny Alley Theatre.

Charlotte (Stephanie Chavara, right) confides in Sara (Liz Zweifler) about great plans. (Michael Brosilow)But the genius question looms mainly on the youthful side of this play’s equation. It becomes an issue between Peter (Cale Haupert) and Charlotte (Stephanie Chavara) only because of a remarkable indiscretion on Sara’s part. Chavara brings credible high intelligence – as well as self-doubt – to the young woman who has acquired the right education (which she flaunts) at the right school and has shown every sign of exceptional prowess in film-making.

Haupert’s understated performance slyly suggests two intriguing possibilities about Peter: He’s essentially still a diamond in the rough from North Dakota who doesn’t really understand that he’s just along for the ride, or everything comes so instinctively easy for him that his lack of outward polish merely belies an extraordinary creative force.

As Haupert plays him – and as director Darrell W. Cox shapes the dramatic arc — Peter is not an especially appealing character. Though he talks the talk, we don’t see his fire. He even asks Charlotte if she would describe him as really smart.

Peter might even be viewed as passively exploiting his wife’s superior gifts. Except for the story she tells about a time, back in college, when she had slaved over a presentation, even making color-coded index cards, only to have Peter waltz in, virtually without preparation, and wing it to the astonishment of everyone. The quality of genius is not strained; it falleth upon some pretty unlikely heads.

None of which is to say Peter is the winner, the man, the you know what. While Walbert’s play implies some profound truths about life and human bondage, it does not pretend to solve the mystery of its title. That would be too clever by far.

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