There are so many positive elements to Joel Drake Johnson’s new play “A Guide for the Perplexed” — receiving its premiere at Victory Gardens in Chicago — that it’s nearly possible to overlook its absence of satisfying narrative cohesion. The play possesses needy, quirky characters — played to the hilt by a potent cast lead by Hollywood journeyman Kevin Anderson and Chicago stalwart Francis Guinan — who, in a series of solid, expressive scenes, expose their inner selves to a perplexing world. It’s so exceptionally promising that it deserves another rewrite to guide us a bit more through its more perplexing and oddly passive qualities.
Anderson, in scruffy mode and ill-fitting denim, plays Doug, just released from a five-year prison sentence for nearly beating a man to death. He moves into his sister’s suburban home, although he knows he’s relying far less on genuine welcome than on familial obligation.
And while it would be natural to expect this former drunk and addict to represent the perplexed and others to be his guides, the opposite is just as true if not more so. Doug’s brother-in-law, Phillip (Guinan), is an uptight, superficially upright figure desperately trying to fill his days, having been fired for white-collar theft he still denies; both his wife Sheila (Meg Thalken) and son Andrew (Bubba Weiler) believe he did it.
Ultra-intelligent gay teenager, Andrew admits almost immediately to anger issues and gnawing suicidal thoughts. He sees in his ex-con uncle with the violent past (and a couple of suicide attempts under his belt) a confessor and a potential savior.
Johnson fills his work with all sorts of thematic threads, the most obvious being the human need for redemption and familial love. Ultimately, though, the piece seems most revelatory on the concept of courage, as characters expose their own cowardice. Even Doug’s adoring pen pal from his prison days (Cynthia Baker) seems afraid to explore a more realistic mate.
And what seems structurally to be the climactic revelation — when Doug explains what happened to him in the days between prison and his arrival at his sister’s house — questions the very notion of what it means to be brave. But as storytelling, even of the character-driven kind, that revelation comes off as anticlimactic.
It would be easy to argue that the lack of complete coherence here is deliberate — after all, this is an expression of how perplexing the world is and that nobody can really rely on others for the answers, if there are any. But there remain gnawing elements including Doug’s tendency to avoidance manifests itself as a constant desire for sleep, that make for a passive center in almost any play. And it’s never clear if Sheila — who appears only on the sidelines on her cell phone — is truly absent for work or for escape; it’s the epitome of underdeveloped.
The play, though, has flashes of brilliance. The early scenes between Anderson and brother-in-law Guinan — an Oscar-and-Felix-style odd couple with more in common than they’d care to admit — are vibrant and funny, although at points director Sandy Shinner lets them go overboard into corny physical shtick. Later scenes have plenty of emotional depth, giving Guinan in particular the opportunity to demonstrate his uncanny range as an actor.
These are worthy, interesting characters, but the narrative never emerges from situation into story.