Playwright: Walter Mosley. At: Congo Square Theatre at the Uptown Hull House, 4520 N. Beacon St. Tickets: 773-296-1108; www.congosquaretheatre.org; $35. Runs through: March 24
Stories about human beings outwitting the devil are always reassuring, but novelist-turned-playwright Walter Mosley takes the fight a step further, pitting his heroes against not only the forces of evil, but those of an almighty savior seemingly content to delegate his operations to an inflexible bureaucracy, leaving mortals caught betweenwell, a rock and a hard place.
That's rightheroes, as in two of them. We first meet mouthy Tempest, who has a wife, a son and a girlfriend. After dying from a stray bullet in the crossfire of a street robbery (we in Chicago know how easily that can happen, don't we?), he's called before Saint Peter to receive the judgment of heavenbut Tempest refuses to accept the judge's verdict. His appeal sends him back to earth, where three years have passed, accompanied by Joshua, his parole-officer angel. The world of human beings is more complex than either of them anticipate, however, and both find themselves surprised at what it has to teach them.
This is where Mosley deviates from the traditional Morality Fable: Tempest may learn the error of his former ways, even surviving an encounter with a slickster calling himself "Basil Bob" (say it out loud), but Joshua, too, is introduced to the comforts of marriage and family. As temporal joys grow increasingly precious and eternity increasingly indistinct, the two pilgrims' decisive role in maintaining the balance of higher powers imposes a terrible responsibility on them. Will they choose to uphold the celestial status quo or postpone the question for as long as they can?
Writers accustomed to the unlimited narrative of prose often have trouble confining themselves to the restrictions of dramatic performance. Not so Mosley, whose saga clocks in at a comfortable, if sometimes bumpy, two hours. Andrei Onegin's sweeping cityscape whisks us from bedrooms and offices to elevators with infinite "down" buttons. Under Daniel Bryant's deft direction, Anthony Irons and Boise Homes make a pair of engaging everymen, as do Jessica Dean Turner and Krenee A. Tolson as their likewise contradictory consorts. Jordan Brown has the most fun, though, making the most of Basil Bob's every onstage minute, including a gleeful Doctor Frank cameo in red satin camisole.