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Farce Takes a Holiday in The Doppelgänger

Rainn Wilson plays dual roles in a geopolitical farce at Steppenwolf.

Dan Plehaland and Rainn Wilson in a scene from The Doppelgänger, directed by Tina Landau, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

The Doppelgänger, a new play by Matthew-Lee Erlbach, now playing at Steppenwolf, carries the subtitle "(an international farce)." While it is indeed a full-on, door-slamming, mistaken-identity screwball farce, it's also a scathing indictment of the military-industrial complex and our complicity as consumers in the mining of conflict minerals in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. These two premises seem wholly incompatible, but The Doppelgänger keeps them together by sheer force of will.

Before the action begins, the stage is set with all the elements of a classic farce: a grand chateau (in this case, the home of Mr. Thomas Irdley, mining magnate) with a large staircase and a long line of guest room doors. The plot is stacked with: a self-important host (Mr. Irdley himself, played by Rainn Wilson); a maid, Rosie (Celeste M. Cooper), who has plans of her own; and a number of important guests poised to descend upon the estate with easily confused valises, packages, and medications.

The guests in question are a motley crew of ambassadors, businesspeople, and other parties interested in the state of Mr. Irdley's substantial copper mines. From Bangui come deposed former leaders Michel and Lolade Masàragbà (James Vincent Meredith and Ora Jones); from the United States, the venal and bloodthirsty General Stanley Harcourt (Michael Accardo) and high-rolling tech bro Wen Xiaoping (Whit K. Lee); from Saudi Arabia, the hedonistic Prince Amir Abdullah (Andy Nagraj) and his Brazilian fiancé Marina (Karen Rodriguez); and from the United Kingdom, Beatrix Geddes-Renwick (Audrey Francis), a Machiavellian ambassador with irritable bowel syndrome.

Into all of this stumbles Jimmy Peterson (Wilson, in a dual role), a fast-talking tourist from Quincy, Illinois, who happens to look exactly like Mr. Irdley. Perfect timing, of course, since a mix-up of Thomas's medication has conked him out moments before the crucial copper mine negotiations are about to begin. The quick-thinking Rosie enlists Jimmy to take Mr. Irdley's place and negotiate the deal — with a few provisions of her own.

Wilson, who is best known for his work on the screen in the television series The Office, gives a charmingly old-school funnyman performance in his dual role. His energy is high, necessarily so as the play audaciously zings around in a comedy pastiche, flipping from Abbott and Costello to Dr. Seuss to Dr. Strangelove at a breakneck pace. Along for the ride is Cooper, who plays the revolutionary Rosie with fire and backbone. Keeping up with Wilson is a tall order, but the supporting cast is up to the task, with a standout performance from Meredith as the wheelchair-bound deposed despot who will do anything to return to power.

The one thing director Tina Landau's production needs is some decisive cuts. With a whopping running time of two hours and 40 minutes (as of opening night), the play drags on into the night. If the cast was worn down, though, they showed no sign. Every gag, pratfall, and slap was timed to the millisecond and staged to the inch on Todd Rosenthal's stately set. All this, while pulling no punches critiquing the political dealmakers and monied elite who are content to tear down the world and rebuild it in their own image.

The Doppelgänger's ending is too effective to spoil, except to say that the story of greed and collusion ends, as it must, in ruin. With masterly direction, a razor-sharp script, and a leading man who gives the performance of his career, this deft combination of comedy and tragedy must be seen to be believed.