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Theatre Review (LA): Rantoul and Die by Mark Roberts at the Lillian Theatre

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Rantoul Illinois is a small town 100 miles south of Chicago that all but disappeared once the Chanute Air Force Base closed. Writer Mark Roberts (Two And A Half Men) chose to set his gritty and edgy play Rantoul and Die in the midst of this desolation, where the Dairy Queen is one of the ‘in” places because it is one of the only places to hang. I loved this whole production. Some truly funny writing, great direction, and truly extraordinary acting make this four-hander one of the year’s true hits.

What I really admire about Mark Roberts’ writing is that a pop sitcom writer has shown that he is capable of writing a good play. So often when writers come to the theatre from television you get just more sitcom. Roberts’ play is in the same vein as the work of one of LA’s favorite playwrights, Justin Tanner, whose quirky scenarios always make for a good time in the theatre. Evidence is the current Voice Lessons at the Zephyr in Hollywood.

What Roberts does is go beyond scenario to write a full play that has meaning and substance as well as off-the-wall humor. Rantoul And Die explores just how a rotten marriage, cheating spouses, and the battle of the sexes can lead to violence and hilarity at the same time.

Director Erin Quigley is to be credited for keeping this wildly eccentric play on track. The fight scenes choreographed by Ned Mochel are terrifying in their violence but also funny in context.

The real heroes of the day, though, are the actors, three of whom come from Chicago and display that edgy, no-holds-barred style reminiscent of Steppenwolf. Rich Hutchinson plays the sensitive, whining husband who receives most of the abuse, especially what he must go through in Act 2. His is a brave performance because he is able to capture just the right balance of victimhood and sincerity. He is deliciously funny in the role of the put-upon husband.

Hutchinson is matched by Cynthia Ettinger, who plays his common and bitchy wife. Though she is bitchy she somehow manages to earn our sympathy. Paul Dillon is outstanding as the edgy friend Gary. He reminds me so much of Billy Bob Thornton, but has his own unique qualities. His choices are daring and exciting. Rounding out the cast is Lisa Rothschiller, as the prime friend of the couple. She is a hoot as her own personal brand of lunacy is revealed.

If you like to laugh and like edgy plays, then Rantoul And Die may be just the ticket. The whole production has a feel of total professionalism. These folks who come from TV Land aren’t slumming but giving us a full theatrical experience.

This wild play is being presented at the Lillian Theatre until July 4th. Make an effort to see this one: it’s brilliant.

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