Chicago Reviews

Elaine May’s cynical, hilarious “Adaptation” shows us the absurdity of life

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Tyler Core.

Elaine May’s 1968 one-act Adaptation took a comical look at the stages of life from birth to death, adapting them to fit the format of a board game. The result is a very silly, enjoyable romp that Rogers Park’s Theatre Above the Law—a company unique in its dedication to the notion of casting and mentoring young community members in its productions—is presenting in its cozy Jarvis Square storefront. The inventive, joyful Tony Lawry-directed production won’t take a huge bite out of your evening (it’s barely an hour long) but it will put a smile on your face.

In Adaptation, we follow a young man (David Hartley) as he examines his own life on a brightly colored game board in search for a “security square” that will show that he has learned enough to “win” the game. (We are told from the start that he could, at any time, declare that he has reached the security square—a nice touch that shows that all of the difficulties we face in our lives are essentially self-made.) He is helped along the way by three players (Ross Compton, Julia Rowley, and Travis Shanahan) who play multiple parts as the people that he encounters during his life: parents, friends, schoolmates, lovers, co-workers, etc. 

The game itself is moderated by a Game Master (played by this production’s youth member, sixth grader Delilah Lane, who gives a strong, fun performance especially when she takes on the role of a shadowy CIA-like figure). Lane’s character helps the game move along, periodically informing Hartley of his successes and failures and forcing him to move back or forward to different squares and/or take one of several kinds of cards bearing instructions. Hartley, whose first act is, of course, being born, navigates the precarious pathway of growing up, learning, asserting himself, courting, and inevitably emulating his father in ways his young self would never have believed.

All of the actors here clearly have a great time. Lawry’s direction makes use of every square inch of the tiny stage (and even the aisle and doors) as his actors assume roles such as Compton’s TV-obsessed father and Rowley’s cigarette-smoking caricature of a sophisticated girlfriend; Lawry has these two also play opposite sex roles at one point, with Rowley’s macho frat boy becoming a recurring character. Shanahan, meanwhile, seems to have carte blanche to bring all sorts of minor roles to vivid life. (He’s even pretty great at one point providing “background music.”)

Adaptation mines its comedy from sharp, witty barbs about the absurdity of life as well as extended bits about how we are shaped by those around us and the choices we make. Although it is firmly set in the late 60s, its comic insights remain entirely apropos to today’s world because May chose not to be topical but instead universal in her satire. Even more than forty years later we can see ourselves in the contestant’s struggles along life’s highway as he learns how to “adapt” himself to the realities and limitations of his existence. And the fact that he never does find that security square that would free him from those struggles is a not too subtle commentary about how most of us live our lives. Theatre Above the Law’s often-hilarious, pointed production will make you laugh. Younger viewers may find it farcical, but we oldsters can easily see the universal truths it presents in its absurd packaging. 

Adaptation is an Theatre Above the Law production now playing at Jarvis Square Theater 1439 W. Jarvis, Chicago, IL, until Mar 8. The show runs approximately 60 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and

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