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Nate Strain. "The Devil and Daniel Webster," one-half of Two Days in court. (Photo by Steve Graue)
Nate Strain. “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” one-half of Two Days in court. (Photo by Steve Graue)

3 Stars

As the baseball season begins, City Lit is ending their 39th theatrical season with “Two Days in Court: A Double-Header of Classic One Acts.”

The two plays are “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet, and the farcical Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “Trial by Jury.”

In “The Devil and Daniel Webster” a young farmer turned senator Jabez Stone (Nate Strain) has literally sold his soul to The Devil “Scratch” (Lee Wichman) in exchange for his success. The agreement comes due coincidentally at midnight on the day of his wedding to Mary Stone (Laura Resinger).

Luckily for the Stones one of their wedding guests is the famed orator of-the-day and prominent attorney Daniel Webster (Bill Chamberlain) who agrees to represent Jabez against Scratch in front of a “jury of the damned” to  get the young Senator released from this most egregious contract.

Webster reminds the jury who have each sold their soul for advantage over others and short term gain, that they have sacrificed the simple pleasures of life.

Benet suggests to us that the better nature of humanity can rise above evil to overcome those who seek to oppress others through force, trickery, and deceit

In a struggle between good and evil, good shall prevail, and America’s values that celebrate the freedom and the pursuit of happiness are on the side of good.

Bill Chamberlain entered as Daniel Webster with an air of authority that made it clear he was there to take control of the situation. Nate Strain was suitably distraught over the prospect of eternal damnation without letting himself get out of control. Kudos to the always enthusiastic Elijah Cox for demonstrating fiddle playing as another of his talents.

Kingsley Day as The Learned Judge, jurors (clockwise from top) Frank Gasparro, Rob Chesler, Lee Wichman in "Trial by Jury," part of Two Days in Court. (Photo by Steve Graue)
Kingsley Day as The Learned Judge, jurors (clockwise from top) Frank Gasparro, Rob Chesler, Lee Wichman in “Trial by Jury,” part of Two Days in Court. (Photo by Steve Graue)

After a brief intermission the cast is back with an absurdist whimsical operetta “Trial by Jury” in which The Plaintiff (Sarah Beth Tanner) is charging The Defendant (Jimmy Hogan) with breach of promise.

The Defendant asserts that he cannot marry The Plaintiff because he is in love with another and offers a compromise: marry The Plaintiff then marry the other woman.. But that seems an unlikely resolution as The Council for the Plaintiff (Ryan Smetana) demonstrates his knowledge of the law by pointing out that this would result in “burglary.”

The Defendant further asserts that it would be a bad marriage because when drinking he is likely to physically abuse The Plaintiff. It is suggested that they get him tipsy and see if it is true but this is also concluded to be a poor solution to the problem.

Some modicum of order is kept by The Usher (Dylan Connelley) with little help from the Gentleman of the Jury or The Plaintiff’s Bridesmaids.

The antics are presided over by The Learned Judge (Kingsley Day) who proffers an unexpected conclusion to the dilemma.

As a vocal ensemble the cast led by musical director Daniel Robinson and accompanied by pianist James Osorio, did a very nice job with pleasant harmonies and a few stand-out performances by Sarah Beth Tanner and Dylan Connelley.

It is assumed that this match-up of the two one act plays is the brainchild of artistic director Terry McCabe. He directed both plays and no doubt is inspired by the events of the day in which power and influence seems to be asserting itself in a way that requires us all to consider our collective values and where legal arguments seem at times to be most absurd.

I have come to expect a lot from this company particularly in light of the recent success of “Safe House.” So with that in mind I consider the performances of these two plays to be at the level of very good community theater but not quite as good as I would expect from an off-loop semi-professional company of actors who might be using this as an opportunity to showcase their full potential.

When doing a classic like D&DW which has been performed by countless high schools and colleges over the past fifty years I am looking for near perfection. Each of the principal actors were well cast but each fell just a hair short of the mark. I am not saying this simply to be critical but rather because I think they have the ability to push it a bit further.

Chamberlain was physically perfection but a bit too understated at times, rendering his final argument, delivered upstage, nearly incomprehensible. I felt that Wichman was playing the part of the devil but did not feel fully invested in the ominous, devious and evil nature of this character.

I loved the quick set change and the lighting on the jury but Liz Cooper left the rest of the stage and actors stranded there in the dark.

Overall this is recommend because it is good material that deserves to be seen and it is generally well performed. Also I have faith in this cast and expect it will improve with each performance.

DETAILS: “Two Days in Court: A Double-Header of Classic One Acts” at City Lit, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago through May 26, 2019. Running time is about 90 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773)293-3682 and visit CityLit.org.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Click here to hear the review as a podcast.

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