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Entries in Once Upon a Rom Com [2012] (1)

Saturday
Sep222012

Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story (2012)

While You Were Laughing

Positive reviews are the hardest to write. It's easy to dash off a thousand words explaining why I think you shouldn't see something. But when it comes to projects I love, I'm compelled to simply hyperlink "GO SEE THIS NOW!!!" to a PayPal treasury stocked with ten thousand free tickets and cab fare.

That's unprofessional and unrealistic, so I'll just have to muscle through. The long and short of today's piece is this: Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story is the best romantic comedy you won't see at the movies this year.

That's right, I'm taking another movie-review break to tell you about the latest production from Chicago's Gorilla Tango Theatre. This one's not a burlesque show, like Holy Bouncing Boobies, but my clothes nearly fell off from laughing so hard. Writer Brian Work, director Neal Fischer, and a uniformly amazing cast have created a unique, hilarious, and very touching story that deserves as much support and visibility as the over-cooked nonsense driving people away from the multiplex.

According to the play's version of history, the 1990s weren't very good to actor Bill Pullman (Philip Platakis). Sure, he played the President of the United States in Independence Day and rode a decade-long money train as "the other guy" in many successful romantic comedies. But his characters' reputations as bland everymen began to affect his real-life self-confidence. After losing out to Tom Hanks-types for the umpteenth time, a critical meeting with an unwittingly cruel Hollywood producer (Bryan Schmiderer) forced Pullman into depressed, alcoholic seclusion.

Enter Jeff Goldblum (Jeremy Eden). Thanks to a wonderful cosmic joke, the professional fidgety mumbler has become Pullman's guardian angel. For reasons never fully explained, he must help his ID4 co-star find true love--which begins, of course, with speed-dating. They hit up a bar, where a sleazy MC (also Schmiderer) oversees a parade of crazies whose pathetic qualities are only outdone by those of our utterly clueless, unconfident hero.

Because this is a romantic comedy, Pullman's quest doesn't end after a dozen failures: waiting outside is the lovely Karen (Madalyn Mattsey). She's also looking for someone special, after having been mysteriously dumped by her vain French boyfriend, Francois (Tommy Venuti). From here, Once Upon a Rom Com gets weird. Though survivors of Meg Ryan's career will easily recognize Work's story beats, the play's performances, dialogue and freshly absurd ideas will break down doors in your mind while also making it difficult not to guffaw.

Take, for instance, the scene in Karen's apartment: desperate to make Pullman put the moves on his new crush, Goldblum tricks both of them into gobbling ecstasy. The clubby sitar music and tripped-out cuddling are nothing new, but this crucial moment between the characters isn't just played for laughs. The actors explore each other with the tenderness and humor of two people genuinely falling in (chemically enhanced) love.

Also, at a sixty-five-minute run-time, the play wisely chops off the bullshit third-act conflict that so often sinks the kinds of movies it parodies. Francois returns to town to sweep Karen off her feet, and Pullman is too insecure to do anything about it. Typically, we'd be forced to endure twenty minutes of the heroine falling for the jerk, only to realize that her true love is getting on a train to Poughkeepsie or something. Work and Fischer cut that nonsense out, and instead make Karen into a much tougher woman than the part suggests. 

All this humor and originality are dependent on the strength of the leads--particularly leads whose main job is to convince us that we're watching Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum for over an hour. Platakis and Eden expertly give the audience more than impressions: they make the characters of Bill and Jeff into people we care deeply about and want to see succeed.

Platakis really sells his character's dilemma: inside the bland, ultra-likeable facade is a snarky, frustrated guy who just wants to be loved. He's a classic artist, tortured by his work and unable to face the world outside of the medium that ultimately consumes him. And, no, he doesn't explain this in a monologue: these are subtleties that I picked up from the actor's understated, heartfelt performance.

Eden's Goldblum is the main draw, a yammering spaz who's also a super-cool, Jurassic Park-quoting prankster. It's great fun to watch a temporarily omnipotent character conjure velociraptors and spontaneous crowds who watch Pullman deliver a variation on his climactic Independence Day speech--yet who can't do something as simple as get a guy to ask a girl out. Eden nails the mannerisms and voice of his inspiration, but pushes into uncharted territory with the help of the script: towards the end of the play, I felt as if the real Jeff Goldblum had never existed before I saw him as this gleeful, quasi-supernatural figment.

Lastly, there's Mattsey, who plays Karen as a genuinely interesting love interest. What makes her special, in this context, is how ordinary she is. Most modern rom-coms center on hyper-driven careerists who just need a laid-back dude to show them what life's really about. Karen is just a nice person looking for love, which she finds in a kindred spirit. Mattsey is naturally funny without being showy, but she's not a doormat for her male co-stars, either. Once Upon a Rom Com has a perfectly balanced lead-performer triumvirate that should be the model for all plays and movies of its kind.

Of course, the main story doesn't take place in a vacuum. Fischer uses his rich supporting cast and a crew of minimalist wizards to make this black-box theatre experience expansive and lively. Schmiderer, Venuti, Bev Bailey, and Amanda Bloom play increasingly ridiculous cartoon characters who ramp up the main tension of a nice guy and a nice girl struggling to find each other on a lunatic planet. They're assisted by Katie Binkley's deceptively creative, cheap-looking props and Linda Lim's Bizarro-world costuming. That's not a slam: their artistry reinforces our heroes' slim odds by contrasting their conservative dress and environments with the hipster acid carnival happening all around them.

I haven't been this surprised and delighted by an entertainment experience since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Once Upon a Rom Com disproves the notion that there are no good ideas left, and that great romantic comedies have to target a lowest-common-denominator audience. Work and Fischer's play is smart, fulfilling, and has been brought to life by a game cast and crew.* If you're hungry for big laughs and bigger heart, skip the AMC and head right for Gorilla Tango Theatre.

Note: You can catch Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story at Gorilla Tango Theatre (1919 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL) on Wednesdays at 7:30pm through October 31st. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased in the lobby or at GorillaTango.com.

*Though my Wednesday evening audience was small, everyone performed as if it was opening night at The Goodman.