Steadstyle Chicago

February 2008 Theatre Review by Joe Stead

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Perfect

Critical Evaluation: ** out of ****

(Left) Thomas Whittington and Eva Gil are pictured in The Side Project's World Premiere production of "Perfect" by Philip Dawkins.  Photo by Scott Cooper/Archetype Images.

Philip Dawkins may have been a bit optimistic in selecting the title for his new play, for while the Chicago actor-turned-playwright shows definite talent, his work is far from "Perfect".  It's the first piece of a double bill now at the tiny Side Project theatre and offers a welcome message about looking beneath the surface and not judging people by conventional standards.  Even so, it's a bit hard to swallow the central premise of a popular high school cheerleader who takes on an inappropriate relationship with the 37 year-old Autistic man she has been assigned to help out.

Natalie Unger (mousy Madeline Long) is the 17 year-old honor student who has been recommended by her school counselor to a "Life Advocacy" group that specializes in assistance for the "differently abled".  Her purpose is to help Robert (Will Schutz) transition from supervised care to a more independent living arrangement.  Robert suffers from a pervasive developmental disorder commonly known as Autism.  And while Natalie tries to get Robert on a healthier diet and instill an aggressive outlook in him, she also finds herself inexplicably falling for him. 

In a way, "Perfect" is a look at crossing boundaries, the lines between love and abuse and a plea for love that is blind.  Still, the idea that an attractive and intelligent teen would jeopardize a promising future, not to mention using and discarding the attentions of a cute high school jock, for an impossible relationship with an older simpleton strains for credibility.  So do some of the other curb balls Dawkins throws our way.  Natalie's father Hurt is an abusive, alcoholic loser who is shallowly delineated.  His role could have helped us better understand why Natalie would be drawn to Robert, as a pseudo father figure perhaps, but it's shadowy at best.  Even more distracting and unnecessary is the subplot of Natalie's counselor and social worker engaging in an extramarital S&M office relationship.  What's up with that?

There are likeable performances from Thomas Whitington as the high school hunk Trevor and Eva Gil as Natalie's best friend Sandra that nicely express the confusions of teenage hormones.  But they don't help clarify the central plot, which takes a certain suspension of disbelief.  Perhaps the best reason to add the Side Project production to your theatregoing list is the wonderfully nuanced performance of Will Schutz as Robert.  Schutz really earns his description of oversized teddy bear, so much skill and humanity does he bring to the role you really do end up caring a great deal for him.  No, it's not "Perfect," but Schutz's performance alone nearly justifies seeing it.  

"Perfect" continues through March 1, 2008 at the Side Project Theatre, 1439 West Jarvis Street in Chicago.  The play runs 2 hours 10 minutes with intermission.  Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.  Tickets are $15, with discounts for seniors, students and industry professionals.  For tickets and information, call (773) 973-2150 or visit www.thesideproject.net