Playwright: Stephen Massicotte. At: Caffeine Theatre at Lincoln Square in the Berry Methodist Church, 4754 N. Leavitt Ave. Tickets: 312-409-4778; www.caffeinetheatre.com; $20. Runs through: April 14
Once upon a time, there were two discharged war veterans who returned to school, ostensibly to write their memoirs. One still suffered, physically and mentally, after having been wounded on the battlefield so terribly that he was erroneously reported as dead. The other, despite being hailed as a hero, found academe boring and expressed his restlessness in irreverent pranks. When they met, each saw in the other something lacking in himself, leading them to forge a close, almost obsessive, meeting of the minds.
Oh, by the way, the war was World War I, the battle was Somme, the school is Oxford University and the two ex-GIs are Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrenceyes, that T.E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, whose thrilling adventures in exotic lands continue to attract admirers of both genders to this day. As recounted by Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte, however, their relationship is not merely an exercise in Edwardian bromance (although this Caffeine Theatre production includes an erotically charged moment featuring a shirtless Brian Grey), but instead explores the problems associated with post-war re-assimilation of menand nowadays, womenforever changed by their experience.
Chief among these is the loss of partisan loyalties engendered by exposure to other cultures. Col. Lawrence, ostensibly retired from his country's service, continues to intrude into England's peace negotiations with the tribal emirates of the Middle East. Under the guise of schoolboy mischief, he protests his government's reluctance to grant the latter independence, even to flying an Arab flag from the top of the campus library. This incorrigibility proves as irksome to the university chancellor as it does to the neglected wife of the smitten Robert. (Even a cross-dressing protofeminist likes her husband to help around the house once in a while.)
Massicotte's metaphor equating the scaling of Renaissance domes and 17th-century turrets with "reaching for greater heights" is carried comfortably by a diligent cast under the tutelage of dramaturg Daniel Smith and dialect consultant Christine Adaire, as well as director Thomas Weitz, who keeps the action from spilling over into the self-conscious excess that so often plagues plays set in this period. Finally, a sleekly coordinated technical team supplies us with a dazzling multi-media panorama of historical background to keep us anchored in our environment for a round of brain exercise at once invigorating and thoroughly satisfying.