In the great heyday of the Cook County democratic machine in the 1950s and 1960s, entire graveyards were known to find their way to the polls. So the premise that Chicago politicians would, when their backs were up against the wall, have tried to elect a dead man is well within the bounds of credibility. Such machinations are the subject of “Early and Often,” a riotous farce about Windy City political and municipal corruption that has turned into a deserved sleeper for Chi’s tiny Famous Door Theater Co.
Now in the fourth month of its Off-Loop run, “Early and Often” is still attracting packed houses for its blend of priests, bartenders, gangster, politicos and their pregnant, pissed-off girlfriends. Buoyed by a lot of favorable press (sometimes coming in hard-news newspaper columns that have nothing to do with theater), the piece is becoming such an unexpected smash that it seems likely to stick around for most of the spring and possibly well beyond.
Politically oriented comedies usually have a tough time enjoying long lives (especially shows about local politics), but the play could have a viable future well beyond its home city. Given all the recent Floridian absurdities, audiences are in the mood to be amused by poll humor.”Early and Often” is the work of the New York-based Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe, ex-Chicagoans who left to write for “Murphy Brown” and later created “Welcome to New York,” which they executive produce in Gotham for CBS. The play is tightly structured in the classic fashion of escalating absurdities. It relies on stereotype for its genre characters, but it’s superbly constructed.
The political machine’s candidate, Marty Collins, gets whacked by the mob for past transgressions. Rather than risk putting up someone new and losing the election, ward bosses decide to pretend that the stiff is still alive. This allows for much gallows humor from Collins’ cynical wife, who always hated him, and lots of shtick surrounding hiding the body in the deep freezes of various merchants looking to curry favor and avoid being hit with code violations. Other strands of the plot involve two young cops deciding whether to bend, and the girlfriend problems of one of the young grasping pols.
There have been a few cast changes in Karen Kessler’s production since the run began, but at a recent viewing it was still in strong farcical shape, with standout performances from Laura T. Fisher (as the wife) and Stephanie Childers (as the pregnant girlfriend). There’s also pleasing work from Dan Rivkin as one of a rare Chicago pols able to see beyond garbage collection and the dispensing of licenses to people owed a favor.