Review: “Cookie Play” (Trap Door Theatre)

Show: “Cookie Play”

Cooke Play at Trap Door

Company: Trap Door Theatre

Venue: Trap Door Theatre

Die Roll: 4

Cookie Play is a world-premiere play created by long-time Trap Door collaborators, writer Ken Prestininizi and director Kate Hendrickson, that presents as a paranoid conspiracy theorist’s wet-dream. Two Men-In-Black agents of an unnamed American intelligence agency convince a suburban-Detroit middle-class couple (Harriet and Jim Penini) to turn their basement into a “black site” in order to interrogate the couple’s son, Tommy. The MIBs have been holding Tommy on suspicion of attempting to spill state secrets, a là Edward Snowden, but have managed to obtain no information from him. Harriet agrees, following some twisted maternal logic that by having her son under her roof, she will be better able to protect him. Insanity ensues as the MIBs torture Tommy in the basement, while at the same time maintaining an oddly childlike relationship with the Peninis upstairs. Jim (Chris Popio), resistant to this odd turn of events, is shuffled out the door rather quickly to a “golf vacation” paid for by Uncle Sam. This leaves Harriet on her own to ply the MIBs with a never-ending selection of fresh-baked cookies and to deal with the situation she has created for herself.

It’s an interesting premise: How do you protect your child when your child is accused of betraying your country’s secrets? The play also questions the concepts of authority, religious faith, and the strength of relationships under duress, and does so with a broad absurdist bent. I don’t object to this in the slightest – it’s one of the more interesting ways to provoke an audience to think about abstract ideas that they take for granted or don’t consider at all. The problem is that neither the script nor the production goes far enough.

This is a play that can’t decide what it wants to be, and so the characters come off as very one-dimensional. Harriet (Lyndsay Rose Kane) is one step away from hyperventilating at any given moment. Playwright Prestininzi has given her little room to try other tactics as her involvement with Agents Frank and Frank devolves. She has three settings: frustrated and trying to cover for her husband; lost in a fairy-tale past concerning her son; and a desperate purveyor of cookies to two off-kilter secret agents. Said agents Frank (Mike Steele and Carl Wisniewski) have the most room to play, yo-yoing from uptight caricatures of G-men to explosive three-year-olds trapped in adult bodies. They’re also the most fun to watch as they ricochet (physically and otherwise) through the show.

Oddly, Gage Wallace as Tommy Pernini gives the most riveting of all the performances – odd because he has much less in the way of lines, and while he’s physically present during much of the play, his character has much less focus until the end. Wallace has an excellent physical vocabulary that startles the audience into a harsh reality after the boffo interactions between Harriet and the agents. Wherever the other characters live, Tommy is in the here and now, and it’s hell.

There is a really startling 45-minute show in here that unfortunately has been stretched beyond its limits into a 90-minute, uneven bumper car ride. It is, however, an interesting experiment in physical and absurdist theatre not often seen in Chicago, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Not-quite-absurdist-enough Cookie Play crumbles in the end.

RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”