Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Joel Maisonet.
How much is a human life worth? That question—and exactly how one could determine such a thing—lies at the center of Kenneth Lin’s new play Life on Paper, now playing at Jackalope Theatre in a production directed by Jackalope Artistic Director Gus Menary. A thoughtful and (mostly) well-written play, it is nonetheless undermined by staging issues that get in its way.
For Mitch (Joel Ewing), the question is at the core of his career. A mathematics genius whose years-long effort to prove a complex math equation blew up in his face, Mitch is now working with insurance companies, using his skill with numbers to help justify lower payouts in wrongful death claims. An airplane crash that claimed eighty lives has brought him to rural Wisconsin, but his job is complicated because one of the passengers was a local billionaire who had been planning to gift his home town with $50 million, enough to change the town’s future…unless Mitch succeeds in reducing the payout.
Opposing him in this endeavor is a local bank actuary named Ida (Mary WIlliamson) who knew the dead man and knows and loves the town and its people. She is also quite good with numbers, though not at Mitch’s level, but she believes that she needs to get him to see past them into the heart of the town in order to persuade him to get his client (the airline, which had failed to properly maintain the jet) to pay out a larger sum.
It is a fairly stereotypical conflict—head vs. heart—in unusual trappings, but both Ewing and Williamson strive to give their characters more depth than that stereotype suggests. The key to Mitch’s character—and the underlying symbolic structure of the whole story—lies in a scene in which he explains his mathematical proof to a captivated Ida. To Lin’s credit, the writing here, as elsewhere, is crisp and clear. He manages to boil the complexities of this proof (which has to do with the distribution of prime numbers) into an easily-digestible shorthand that makes it clear not only to Ida but to the audience as well: no easy feat. As Mitch explains that he was trying to prove that the equation works out to infinity, it may be geeky stuff but his passion is plain, and Ewing works overtime to allow us into this numbers guy’s soul. It works on Ida; they end up in bed together. (Who knew math could be foreplay?)
Williamson’s performance is also outstanding. We meet Ida in the middle of a divorce (from artist/nice guy Michael, played with smoldering sympathy by Josh Odor). Lin does not really provide much of a reason for this; she still depends upon him and he still loves her. Nonetheless, with her personal life out of joint, she has thrown herself into her job, and her defense of her town seems to give her something to focus on. It’s as if she can resuscitate something in herself if she can get Mitch (and the courts) to see the importance of considering what is intangible as well as the raw numbers from an algorithm. Of course, there is a gamble in this approach: should she lose—and Mitch’s record suggests she will—Ida will have failed in two highly personal matters in quick succession, which could be devastating.
There are other characters here too: Mitch’s cousin Ivan (Guy Wicke), a baseball player who knows he doesn’t have the talent to get beyond Double A but just wants to keep playing the game he loves, and a waitress named Maggie (Satya Jnani Chavez) who dreams of being a singer-songwriter. These characters seem to exist to soften Mitch, whose burning passion for the numbers has been replaced by a more formalized dependence on them, as if his life will only have meaning as long as he can justify it on paper.
As good as the performances are, though, and as well-written as some of the scenes are, it is difficult to get past the script’s inherent staging issues. Lin has done Menary and scenic designer Ryan Emens no favors with an episodic structure that features scenes in a hotel breakfast room, an office, a bench high on a hilltop, a hotel room, a Winnebago(!), a courtroom, and an art gallery. As clever as Emens’ set is with its hidden rollouts, etc. it might have been better to go with something less complicated. Changing from one scene to another—though Menary’s crew has it down to a science here—is clunky and awkward and time-consuming. The long set changes risk pulling the audience out of the play, especially dangerous with such heady material. I found myself sitting there wondering if this play might have been stronger as a two-hander, concentrating solely on the interesting relationship between Mitch and Ida on a far simpler set. But that’s me; your mileage may vary.
Life on Paper is now playing at the Jackalope Theatre, 5917 N Broadway, Chicago through June 30. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.