Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s THE DOPPELGANGER (AN INTERNATIONAL FARCE), now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is a wild, swift-moving, and hilarious ride. As indicated by the numerous doors on Todd Rosenthal’s opulent set, Erlbach’s play employs many of the hallmarks of classic farce. And under the direction of Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau, the production’s first-rate and comically expert cast take Erlbach’s combination of zippy one-liners and absurd physical antics and run (sometimes literally).
THE DOPPELGANGER takes place at the decadent house of British businessman Thomas Irdley (Rainn Wilson—more on him later) in Bangui, the capital of the war-torn Central African Republic. Irdley has discovered some mighty valuable copper mines within the country, and he plans to meet with a host of international partners to collude. Along with this cast of characters, Thomas’s doppelganger Jimmy Peterson (also Wilson) arrives at the Irdley household. Jimmy is an unassuming and eccentric kindergarten teacher from Quincy, Illinois, who arrives in the midst of his African travels. When Thomas becomes indisposed after accidentally taking a zebra tranquilizer, Jimmy must assume his role and run this outrageous meeting of the minds—with Thomas’s maid and political mastermind Rosie (Celeste M. Cooper) helping him accomplish the task. Rosie, of course, has an agenda of her own: she’s fighting tirelessly for the rights of the copper mine workers, and she wants Jimmy to help her. When Thomas’s international colleagues arrive on the scene, farcical chaos naturally ensues.
Though Erlbach aims to explore deeper themes of human greed, violence, and other follies in THE DOPPELGANGER, the play succeeds most at delivering nearly non-stop humor, ceaseless entertainment, and some of the finest physical comedy I’ve seen on any stage recently. The cast of THE DOPPELGANGER is endlessly game to embrace all that this play throws at them, and that is what allows the production to succeed. Cooper is incredible as Rosie, and the timing of each of her many zingers is simply delightful. She’s also quite the physical comedian, as she goes toe-to-toe with Wilson in many fencing matches. As American General Stanley Harcourt, Michael Accardo arrives on the scene as a harried, sweaty mess and sets the tone for some increasingly ridiculous moments. Audrey Francis is superlative as the British businesswoman Beatrix, who is unfortunately dealing with irritable bowel syndrome. Francis is not afraid to lean into the more awkward and outsized comedic moments in her role, and that allows her to really sell it—she’s nothing short of hilarious. Whit K. Lee is manic and entertaining as the young American entrepreneur Wen (whose first name becomes fodder for many Abbott and Costello style jokes prior to his arrival). Wen only wants cheap copper for his electronic devices, and yet Lee is delightful when he becomes swept up in the shenanigans of those around him.
James Vincent Meredith and Ora Jones are a powerful comic pair as Michel Másarágba and his wife Lolade. They play off each other magnificently, while each have moments to show their individual talents as well (Meredith honed much of his comedic chops in his three years on THE BOOK OF MORMON national tour). Andy Nagraj delights as Prince Amir Abdullah. Karen Rodriguez once again proves that she may just be one of the funniest actors in Chicago right now with her turn as his wife Marina, who has some secrets up her sleeve. As Thomas’s wife Theresa, Sandra Marquez has perhaps the most grounded presence of all those onstage, but she sets in motion yet more chaos.
At the center of THE DOPPELGANGER’s rather extensive and eccentric character list, of course, are the dual roles of Thomas and Jimmy. It will likely come as little surprise that Wilson, perhaps best known for portraying Dwight Schrute in THE OFFICE, is a superb comic actor with an endlessly compelling presence. Wilson is swift and nimble, and he convincingly and easily switches between his two characters—sometimes within seconds. He finds distinct and uniquely hilarious energies for his dual personas as Thomas and Jimmy. Amidst all the chaos in THE DOPPELGANGER, Wilson has a presence that anchors the comedy and helps to make all the puzzle pieces fit together. It also helps that he’s in clearly superlative company (and kudos to Dan Plehal for giving it his all as Beau D’oublé, Thomas/Jimmy’s body double who becomes a character all his own).
THE DOPPELGANGER provides an evening of hilarious farce and fun. And though Erlbach’s deeper messages and themes within the play may not deliver quite as strongly as intended, the entertaining and escapist elements of the piece deliver big-time. Landau’s taut direction keeps the many layers of the play running smoothly, and the cast nails every single moment. We all need a good laugh sometimes, and THE DOPPELGANGER has laughs aplenty.
THE DOPPELGANGER (AN INTERNATIONAL FARCE) plays at Steppenwolf Theatre Company through June 2. Tickets are $20-$114. Visit Steppenwolf.org.
Photo by Michael Brosilow