Comedy and tragedy share a room at A Red Orchid.
David Adjami's 3C, currently playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, is one of the funniest comedies to be produced in Chicago this year. Running just 85 minutes, it crams in enough laughter to fill a whole season of sitcom binge-watching. 3C is also, somehow, one of the most heartbreaking tragedies currently playing, exploring the isolating effects of untreated trauma, internalized homophobia, and mental illness.
It's fascinating that such riches could be mined from a landscape as comedically barren as Three's Company, the ABC sitcom that ran from 1977 to 1983, but anybody who has seen the show will instantly recognize the connection even before the play begins. The set, designed by Sarah JCP Watkins, is a faithful re-creation, complete with a sunken living room and a row of bedroom doors lined up perfectly for farcical misunderstandings. The characters are familiar, too, though the names have been changed: the clever, prudent Linda (Christina Gorman) works at a flower shop, while her ditzy blond roommate Connie (Sigrid Sutter) dates around. In order to make rent, they need to find a third roommate, and when Brad (Nick Mikula), a recently discharged Vietnam vet and aspiring chef, stumbles into their apartment, all their problems are solved — assuming they can convince their landlord, the sleazy Mr. Wicker (Lawrence Grimm), that Brad is gay, and therefore harmless.
The jokes are delivered at a breakneck pace and staged adroitly, but the humor frames a vicious darkness. When examined frankly, Linda's zingers about Connie's romantic misadventures reveal sharp jealousy and self-loathing, while Connie uses strange men to self-medicate her own emotional trauma. Brad, meanwhile, has to wince his way through cruel homophobic (and homoerotic) jokes made by Mr. Wicker and Terry (Steve Haggard), the groovy womanizer who lives upstairs.
The pained sincerity of Mikula's performance as the tortured Brad is matched by his outrageous physical comedy. He has an easy chemistry with Gorman, who poignantly adds an undercurrent of anguish to all of her level-headed chiding. As Connie, Sutter brings the laughs as she flits between vacuous sweetness and sly manipulation. Haggard is well-cast as the preening Terry, with expressive eyes that betray the conflict under his macho posturing. The ensemble is completed by Jennifer Engstrom as Mr. Wicker's fragile wife, who staggers in and out of Apartment 3C, barely functioning, but too anxious to take her antipsychotics.
Director Shade Murray denies the audience any distance that might salve the discomfort of these situations. The audience is so close to the action that those seated in the front row could easily perch their drinks on Connie and Linda's coffee table. It's an excellent choice that makes the uneasy combination of comedy and tragedy even more precarious. Dressed in appropriately ghastly costumes by Myron Elliott, the characters of 3C are just inches away as they dance, drink, laugh, fight, and weep.
By keeping the focus on the characters and their internal struggles, A Red Orchid's production of 3C is something more than just a sitcom parody, or a haughty indictment of a less P.C. time. It's touching, thoughtful, and nonstop fun.