In a Chicago landscape of actors’ showpieces and unapologetic realism, Sean Graney and his company, the Hypocrites, stand out because of their cool conceptualism. At their best, as in a 2005 production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, the Hypocrites meld striking visuals and chilly distancing effects to create devastating work. But as Johnny—the central character in The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide—knows all too well, being out of step with one’s peers can carry a price. The precocious, oft-bullied Johnny winds up as part of the eponymous love-suicide, leaving behind only this play, which his classmates are presenting in tribute to him. For the Hypocrites, that price is sometimes an excessive hermeticism; their staging, always tinged with surrealism, can take on the pallor of an exquisitely designed corpse.
In Love-Suicide, part of 59E59’s “GoChicago” series, playwright Graney, director Devin Brain, and the adept company have crafted an idiosyncratically clever one-act, as precisely tooled as a Swiss music box. But it remains safely in cartoon territory, never quite breaking the barrier that protects the audience from its dark concerns. The cartoon in question is a version of Peanuts, with Charles Schulz’s mild depression filtered through the more sanguinary imagination of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose puppet love-suicides thrilled 17th-century Kyoto. The play reels out its sinister revenge conceit in weirdly suggestive phrases seemingly translated from Esperanto: In the expressive mumbling of Joseph Binder as Johnny, lines such as “My like for you is not a chore for you” take on a depth they don’t entirely deserve. Like Donnie Darko or Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, Johnny’s too good for this painful world. The sharp, spooky talents of the Hypocrites are made for fresher territory.