Victory Gardens takes aim with Sarah Gubbins’ family drama.

Mike Tepeli, Patrese D. McClain, and Kelli Simpkins in Cocked, directed by Joanie Schultz, at Victory Gardens Theater.
Mike Tepeli, Patrese D. McClain, and Kelli Simpkins in Cocked, directed by Joanie Schultz, at Victory Gardens Theater.
(© Michael Courier)

It's been a high-profile month for Sarah Gubbins. On the same day as the world premiere of her play Cocked, Amazon announced that the L.A.-based, suburban-Chicago-raised playwright was teaming up with Transparent creator Jill Soloway to create a new series, I Like Dick. Victory Gardens Theater's debut of Cocked shows just why Gubbins' star is on the rise.

At the outset, Cocked traffics in familiar tropes: Crime reporter Izzie (Patrese D. McLaine) and high-powered attorney Taylor (Kelli Simpkins) are a stable, well-off couple living in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood, a longtime lesbian enclave. Their home is impeccably tidy and conservatively tasteful. Into their well-appointed world comes Taylor's train wreck of a brother, Frank (Mike Tepeli). He's one of those serially unemployed Peter Pan types: thirtysomething, perpetually single, living in his mother's basement, repeatedly getting fired from the likes of Auto Zone and Home Depot and occasionally going to jail for petty side hustles such as selling stolen hubcaps or plumbing fixtures.

Initially, it feels like Taylor is overreacting when she denounces Frank as a sociopath. Her refusal to let him spend the night baffles and upsets Izzie, who can't wrap her mind around a sister who would make her own flesh-and-blood sleep in the train station rather than let him crash on the futon in the sun room. But as Cocked progresses, it becomes apparent that Taylor's fears are well-founded. In less than 36 hours, Frank manages to lay waste to both Izzie and Taylor's carefully cultivated apartment and their seemingly stable relationship. He's more than a houseguest from hell: He's a one-man death squadron — perhaps not intentionally so. But when bullets are flying and the room is on fire, intent becomes beside the point.

One of Gubbins' great talents is her ability to escalate the stakes from jokey sitcom to life-and-death thriller in a way that's both believable and surprising. Watching Cocked, you're not fully aware of just how far Gubbins' has gone until the room starts filling with smoke and the firearm comes into play. Gubbins makes the journey seem totally plausible; each step is as credible as it is unnerving.

Well, almost. The sole significant problem with Cocked lies with Frank. There's nothing really threatening about him, and that's especially important for the final 20 minutes of the piece. Without an element of menace, the act he commits doesn't ring true. Though Tepeli's Frank is wholly believable as a havoc machine, nothing in his demeanor points to a man who would be remotely capable doing something unspeakably cruel and life threatening. As Taylor, Simpkins paints a taut, detailed portrait of a woman striving to keep precise, almost obsessive control over her life. She also depicts a woman whose calm exterior is under siege. For Taylor, pressures from the outside are fueling a meltdown from within. When it finally comes, it's both epic and dismayingly familiar to anyone who has ever caved over life's pressures.

McLaine's Izzie doesn't get the emotional fireworks like Taylor does, but McLaine doesn't need them. Izzie is troubled from the start, and it is through her that we first see the cracks under the glossy veneer of the Taylor-Izzie household. There's an early scene when Izzie is forced to decide whether feeling safe in her own home is worth betraying a fundamental trust with Taylor. But there's an even bigger decision to be made later, and the story and McLaine make the dilemma as raw, overwhelming, and painful as it would be in real life.

Gubbins has a natural ear for dialogue, and that goes a long way toward making Cocked so entertaining: The laughs come rapid-fire throughout, but there's not a second when the comedy feels unnatural. Her ability to capture the humor, whether dark and painful or sunlit and giddy, in humanity is significant.

Over the course of the zippy 90-minute production, director Joanie Schultz takes the audience from an intelligent but fairly conventional family drama into an unnerving nail-biter of a thriller.

Chelsea Warren's ingeniously flexible set adequately captures the understated, upscale interior of a condo owned by a pair of working professionals without kids. The place is tidy to a fault – and a keen reflection on Taylor's need for control. Its flexibility becomes apparent as Frank's increasingly irrevocable influence increases. By final blackout, the condo is in credible ruins from drywall to toilets. Janice Pytel's costumes are also spot-on: Taylor's suit pants are creased to a knife-edge; Izzie's off-duty journalist lives in sweats and leggings, and Frank looks like he has a sustained relationship with Goodwill.

This three-person drama has smarts, wit, and a story that'll have you on the edge of your seat in the final scene. It's not flawless, but Cocked is mightily entertaining. The show fires true as comedy with dead serious implications. By the end, you'll end up unsettled, and will likely leave the theater looking over your shoulder at a world full of shadowy menace you didn't notice before.

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Closed: March 13, 2016