What is Christopher Durang's greatest skill as a playwright? As a man possessed with a lethal and barbed imagination, his comic nightmares leave audiences laughing before they're surprised by a gut-punch of emotion, leaving it impossible to tell where the laughter ends and the pain begins.
Among Durang's most successful early plays in this sense are his classic double-bill of one-acts, The Actor's Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, which Oracle Theatre Company is presenting in a worthwhile revival staged by artistic director Aaron Shapiro.
The Actor's Nightmare follows a man named George Spelvin (Aaron J. DeYoung), who finds himself in a theatre from which he cannot escape. The name is a sly joke for theatre insiders: it is typically bestowed upon dead bodies and baby dolls onstage as well as actors playing multiple roles who wish to keep their identities concealed. Indeed, George thinks he's an accountant, but everyone else thinks he's an actor, and soon George is thrust into a series of roles he's never learned — from Hamlet to one of Samuel Beckett's tramps. The parody takes a darker turn when George finds himself at the end of A Man for All Seasons, with everyone around him determined to decapitate him.
DeYoung is a funny and sympathetic George, finding the humor and terror in a man so obviously out of his element. If the production — and the play — take some time to hit its stride, by the time it reaches the land of Beckett, it's hilarious.
Meanwhile Sister Mary Ignatius... remains a more substantial work. It follows the title character (an excellent Maggie Speer) as she lectures the audience on Catholicism. Complete with visual aids, her presentation confirms any skeptic's worst ideas about Catholicism, filled as it sometimes seems with arbitrary rules and an obsession with hellfire. For those who are not easily offended, the play is a blasphemous delight. Things turn even stranger when four former students arrive with an agenda of their own, and the peak of the play is a wrenching monologue delivered by the group's ringleader, Diane (Dara Allen-Trainer), about how her youthful faith in a rational universe was cruelly shattered by reality.
Speer is wise not to give away the depths of Sister Mary's delusions, and in so doing she creates a frightening portrait of a woman whose monstrousness at first seems benign.
If these productions are not the most polished — the pace can sometimes drag, not every joke lands — it offers an excellent introduction to the work of one of our most creative and comical playwrights.
The Actors Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explain It All for You runs Aug. 11-Sept. 17 at the Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets: (773) 398-6339. Website: www.oracletheatre.org.