There is more than a touch of genius on display in the American Blues Theater’s production of “Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight.” And that genius must be equally credited to the conceptual magic of playwright/director John Kolvenbach and to Jim Ortlieb, a veteran Chicago actor with a slew of Broadway, film and TV credits, whose wholly riveting performance as the universally named Man is simply phenomenal. A true tour de force turn.
But be on notice (although not at all scared away): As a member of the audience you will be asked to become a contributing group force in this play — a work that, it must be said, gives Samuel Beckett a real run for his money in its exploration of isolation and existentialism. And all it takes to assure this Man that he is truly alive is a bit of clapping, a few moments of standing by your seat, and the humming of the musical tones emitted by an old-fashioned dial-tone telephone. The only rule for the night is that the members of the audience “be here,” meaning they validate his being by responding to his presence.
Starved for human connection, this hollowed out, middle-aged man yearns for lost connections, most notably to his mother. And now, in turning to us with a palpable desperation that suggests the human condition in general, he also subtly brings to mind what was lost throughout the pandemic — both for performers and their audiences, and for the many others separated from interaction with family, friends and the world at large. In a sense, the title of Kolvenbach’s play suggests it all.
The power of this work is in large part dependent on the power of an actor of extraordinary skill. And Ortlieb, a gaunt fellow with a slight beard, who is dressed here in a suit and tie befitting an office underling (and who, earlier in life, might have been the college student left in an otherwise empty dorm during the holiday season), gives an uncannily brilliant, perfectly controlled, yet emotionally feverish performance that suggests a man just on the edge of a psychological breakdown.
He’s alternately sardonic, self-destructive and both painfully self-aware and self-mocking. Of course, the wonderful irony here is that in capturing Man’s inability to forge or sustain personal relationships, he carries off an astounding interplay between actor and audience.
The ideal backdrop for the play has been designed and lit by Michael Trudeau, and is a frozen avalanche of loss in the form of a pileup of vintage wooden chairs that suggests a deeply troubled state of mind.
And be advised: The play has a terrifically finessed surprise ending that should not be divulged here. Just see this fascinating production and stand up to applaud all those involved in it.
“Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight” runs through April 9 at American Blues Theater’s temporary home at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. For tickets visit americanbluestheater.com or call 773-975-8150.
One final note: After more than three decades as an itinerant but popular and award-winning company, American Blues Theater recently announced that it has purchased a 17,965 square-foot property in Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue North Arts District to serve as its permanent home. The building will include two theaters (a 148-seat proscenium and a 40-seat flexible studio), plus offices and storage space, a bar and concessions area, and a small on-site parking lot. It is being designed by John Morris of Morris Architects Planners, with theater systems by Schuler Shook. Groundbreaking is set for this coming summer, and completion is set for November 2023.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic