Playwright: David Adjmi. At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: 312-943-8722 or ARedOrchidTheatre.org; $30-$35. Runs through: June 4
Is there is such a thing as bait-and-switch whiplash? If so, audiences catching A Red Orchid Theatre's Chicago premiere of 3C might want to brace themselves in advance.
David Adjmi's play is a comically critical deconstruction of the hit TV sitcom Three's Company, which ran on ABC from 1977 to 1984. 3C starts off like any campy pop-cultural spoof you'd expect from a scrappy theater company. ( Hell in Handbag Productions comes to mind, though minus the drag. )
But midway through, 3C takes several dark and serious turns as it depicts frank instances of alcoholism, drug use, homophobia and unwanted sexual assaults. It's as if Adjmi wants audiences to seriously rethink their laughter at 1970s attitudes and sitcom situations that cause his characters so much physical and emotional trauma.
Understandably, the rights holders to Three's Company wanted to put the kibosh on 3C after its 2012 off-Broadway debut. But Adjmi successfully sued in a court on free-speech grounds to show that 3C is a critical parody.
Currently free from litigation, 3C is likely to divide Chicago audiencesespecially if they don't want to be overly analytical about what is typically written off as sitcom fluff. But director Shade Murray and his top-flight acting ensemble deliver the goods at being hilariously zany while also delivering all the fraught drama of 3C.
Sigrid Sutter is wonderful as the ditzy blonde Connie. Her beauty and success at attracting men pushes several body-image and self-confidence buttons of her more responsible cash-strapped roommate, Linda ( a heartbreaking Christina Gorman ).
The accident-prone Brad ( an excellent Nick Mikula ) is passed off as gay so he can be the girls' new roommate, but this ploy puts him into very uncomfortable situations. Both upstairs ladies-man neighbor Terry ( a louche Steve Haggard ) and landlord Mr. Wicker ( a menacing Lawrence Grimm ) say some really confusing and threatening things.
But the most memorable comic work comes from Jennifer Engstrom, as Mrs. Wicker. With her scratchy voice and oversize personality, Engstrom masterfully straddles both the duality of being a sitcom eccentric and an unstable woman who truly needs pharmaceutical help.
On top of the masterful performances, A Red Orchid's 3C is also a visual winner at creating a very beige 1970s sitcom world. Both the sturdy stuccoed walls of set designer Sarah JHP Watkins and the gloriously tacky outfits by costume designer Myron Elliott capture the era perfectly.
The tonal shifts of 3C can be upsetting and extreme. However, 3C does powerfully suggest that there can be palpable pain behind all those sitcom laughs.