The hero in this dark comedy is an unnamed taxi driver who serves as our guide on a journey to the underbelly of the holiday season. John Pierson plays this aw-shucks Midwestern Everyman with understated humor and believable frustration. The character is not a Chicago native, so the story is a variation on "the small-town boy goes to the big city and gets disillusioned." Both Pierson and the play are at their best in moments of interaction between the cabbie and his fares, whether comic or serious. The playwright stumbles with self-conscious scenes of the driver talking to himself -- unnecessary moments, because the words don't reveal anything we haven't already gleaned from Pierson's fine-tuned reactions.
An ensemble of six versatile actors play the various fares. David Webb stands out among the cast, playing a host of wildly energetic or completely mysterious characters. Webb and Larry Dell score the evening's highest humor marks as visiting New Yorkers who yell "Cubs suck!" at passing Chicagoans. (As a Cubs fan, I was deeply amused.) Dell is also memorable as a kind of Jerry Lewis dimwit obsessed with space exploration and as Steve, a bigoted, racist, sexist asshole.
Che Pompey creates four radically different female characters: a giggly stoned girl, a sex-obsessed con artist, a realistically enraged woman about to give birth and a tongue-popping passive girl who tries to stand up to her abusive boyfriend. Each situation gives Pierson a comic obstacle to overcome, and his varied reactions ring true. Thankfully, not everyone who gets in the cab is a complete lunatic. Julie O'Neill plays several of the more ordinary characters and brings honesty to these everyday roles. These slightly calmer scenes also bring a sense of balance to the show.
Rosa Lee provides the gut punch of the play as a crime victim on her way home. Our previous laughter is frozen into stunned silence as her painful story emerges. The cab driver's feelings of helplessness are palpable; it seems as if the icy Chicago winter has settled permanently in his soul. In such a moment, Greek playwrights would bring in the deus ex machina and the gods would save the day. Kern creates a Santa ex machina: a shot-glass of holiday spirit provided by a peaceful architect, played with warmth by Archie J. Coleman. Unexpectedly, the playwright turns predictable, having Coleman's character deliver a moral about love to the discouraged cabbie. Wisely, director Wayne Salomon resists any urge to wrap up the final moment with a bow. Our Everyman driver could burst into song or into tears, and we're left to decide which we want to do as we leave the theater.
The rapid-fire style of the play and the constant parade of new characters will satisfy your inner channel-surfer but frustrate any desire for depth. Most of the characters aren't even given names, just defining features (Religious Woman, Southside Guy). The production is well-supported by set designer Dan Steinau, who used the real front end of a car and genuine car seats to build the cab in which nearly all the action takes place. Putting the car on a tilted platform not only makes all the actors visible, it also provides a visual representation of the unexpected slant of the story. Perhaps the day before Christmas should be different, but in Hellcab it's just another day of greed, fear, confusion, lust and good intentions gone bad, with some laughs thrown in to make it bearable. Hellcab is for theater what Bad Santa is for film: a cynical look at a sometimes overrated holiday.