August in Chicago means many things. Obligatory Street Festivals, requisite tourist season, oppressive humidity and the return of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival at Victory Gardens Theatre. This three week festival staged fourteen new musicals, all presented in varying forms, best described as “workshops in development.” What this actually means is each is performed with minimalist sets and costumes mostly likely crafted by whatever is currently hanging in each participatory actor’s closets. One show that caught my fancy and shows potential was Pen. Directed by Michael Driscoll, Pen was a most unusual romantic comedy. With music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz & a book and lyrics by DC Cathro, the show featured two leads who started, innocently enough, as pen pals and became more. The rub, one of these two men is in jail. Their entire romance is cultivated through nothing more than written correspondence. In a modern world of texting, snapchat, e-mail, and a plethora of additional electronic communication formats, I found the concept of the hand written love letters of Pen enthralling. I personally find all of these additional formats of communication fundamentally more isolating and detached then cohesive. Add in clever musical direction from the immensely talented Aaron Benham, and I was intrigued.
From the opening song, “Deal Paul,” it was clear Pen would be mining major laughs from its supporting characters. Recently dumped Paul (Shaun Baer) leans on his two best gal pals to help him cope. The outrageous, Susan (Lauren Paris) and the outlandish, Lee (Jenna Schoppe) both advertising executives who are the Grace and Karen to Baer’s Will. These two sprinkle every scene they are in with nonstop giggles. When Paul’s ex, Grayson (Paul Michael Thomson) returns, Susan welcome’s him with an icy, “See you, Greyskull!” Lee, in between kvetching about her litany of current clients and strategizing plans for her upcoming nuptials, cannot see that her colleague is hurting from the breakup. A hurt that finds him trolling the internet and diving, headfirst, or maybe, heart first, into instigating a correspondence based relationship with an incarcerated convict named Rod (Michael Owen Achenbach). Their innocent flirtation quickly becomes a more passionate prison pen pals situation. When Susan discovers Paul’s bourgeoning romance, she swiftly and comically confronts him. Defending his actions, he exclaims this is just a “a mutually beneficial living journal” and concludes “I need that.” She continually chides him how this incarcerated Casanova will just try to shake him down for money. She cautions him, “this is all just fantasy, right?”
On the flip side, we have Ron, sitting in jail, who converses with the Prison Guard (Randolph Johnson) a chap who negotiates between wanton matchmaker and warden. No correspondence occurs with the outside world that the guard doesn’t read first. Ron has an additional secret that the guard knows and holds over him, but Paul (and the audience) are left in the dark for most of the piece. As Paul and Ron grow more attached through their letters, Grayson, Paul’s superfluous ex, decides he wants Paul back. Singing “little words will clarify, but little words will terrify” he equates “love’s a trap. It’s just like jail.” What is our hero to do? Continue fostering a relationship with a man he loves but cannot have or be with a man he can have, but doesn’t love? Which is the real prison? When Grayson finds out about Ron from a meddlesome Susan, ha asks what Ron does for a living? “He’s in…….concrete” Lee retorts as an answer better then saying he is behind bars. The one-liners flow freely and silliness is on display in abundance. The fantasy sequence “Don’t Piss Off the Girlfriends” performed by Susan & Lee, as they intimidate, bully, coerce and strong-arm criminal Ron, is a hysterical showstopper. The ladies are just looking out for their buddy, so naturally they both intervene on his behalf. Metaphorically in song and by each writing to the prisoner themselves. You would think Paul would be able to corral them into not meddling, setting up some type of boundaries, but he is so passive in all of his relationships, it is no wonder he is only truly connected to the one man he cannot see or touch.
Which brings me to the ending. Pen is very much a work in progress. The pendulum of tone swings widely from silly sitcom hijinks to potential poignancy of the budding romance against insurmountable odds. When the characters do finally come face to face at the tale’s conclusion, as Paul has flown out to meet Ron for the first time, the momentum and tension which had been slowly mounting over the proceeding hour was inexplicably and instantaneously lost. Their dialog was so off-putting and disjointed, like a cold bucked of water thrown directly at the audience’s collective face. I didn’t expect a Drew Barrymore romantic comedy, happily ever after resolution, Ron has at least another 13 years to life on his sentence, but I also didn’t expect the characters’ journey to end with such abrupt rejection. Why spend all this time slowly cultivating this potential romance, not to mention finally allowing the characters to meet in person, only to have them encounter one another to quickly discard their connection? The collaborators behind Pen must refine their focus. Is this a cautionary tale about the dangers of communication in the electronic age? Is this a unrequited love story between two opposites destined to not be together? Or Is this just a sitcom pitch cleverly disguised as a musical? I think all involved need to apply a little more ink to paper to enhance their concept of Pen.
Chicago Musical Theatre Festival at Victory Gardens Theatre presents Pen now playing through August 26, 2016