Review: “The Sweeter Option” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart in "The Sweeter Option" at Strawdog Theatre
Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart in “The Sweeter Option” at Strawdog Theatre

Show: The Sweeter Option

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Theatre

Die Roll: 17

If you’re a fan of film noir, then “The Sweeter Option” will be right up your alley. Set over three days of a sultry 1971 Chicago June, the play ably evokes specific set-pieces particular to the genre: the femme fatale, the average-joe in over his head, money gone astray, murder, a tense conversation in the getaway car, and last-minute twists and turns.  Our two protagonists, Tucker (Sam Guinan-Nyhart) and Irene (a phenomenal Michaela Petro), even have the trademark rapid-fire patter down.

In the wee hours of June 25, 1971, Tucker sidles into a buddy’s fishing cabin with a passed-out Irene over his shoulder. When she wakes up, what appears to be a kidnapping quickly proves something far more complex, involving a rather clever perpetration of fraud, two neighbor kids who think they’ll make a quick buck, and an uneasy truce between Irene and Tucker. A seemingly controlled situation goes sideways fast, and people start dropping dead all over the place courtesy of our two anti-heroes.

One odd thing: the scenes are played out of sequence starting with the second scene, but ending with the last. It’s an affectation that might have been employed to highlight the disjointedness of time common in film noir – but here, it can be incredibly confusing if you’re not following the scene list in the program. In addition, the transitions are Mad Men by way of an acid trip, and highlight Tucker’s struggle with the choices he makes, has made, or will make. I almost wish playwright John Henry Roberts had chosen one conceit or the other, though; together, they were a little overwhelming. I think the narrative is strong enough to show front-to-back or back-to-front sequences.  While the trick of scenes out of order was a neat idea, the text didn’t really support the choice.

Michaela Petro nails the complexities of Irene with ease: headstrong, calculating, funny, wry, conniving – all the necessary qualities of a fascinating woman. While Sam Guinan-Nyhart took a moment to relax into Tucker, he more than matched Petro by the end.  A great example is the give-and-take in the car as they’re trying to get out of town and decide where to go next, which sizzled with tension and expectation.

The rest of the cast ebb and flow around these two, and add nice touches to flesh out the small but interconnected world that swallows Irene and Tucker.  Sarah Price as Joy has the most range: she brings some well-needed levity to early scenes, but also delivers some gut-punches near the end. Emily Tate takes a nice turn as Carolyn, the woman who sets Tucker on his path, and Matt Farabee has small but touching role as a kid who recognizes Tucker as a former hero. Rounding out the cast are Rudy Galvan as the thuggish Pete (and Joy’s brother), and Jon Beal (the understudy for the role) as Tucker’s friend Mac. Beal in particular seemed a little out of his element, but he was also playing the one character whose purpose in the story is the least clear.

All is all, this was a treat of a show. A shoutout to Strawdog for this, their 100th production. May they continue to encourage and produce new works for 100 more.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Clever homage to noir, with complex anti-heroine and conflicted anti-hero.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”