Fair UseBy Manning Harris

Fair Use is a delightful comedy about love and social/legal politics in a Chicago law office; it’s running through Saturday, Dec. 5, at Actor’s Express.  This world premiere is directed by Freddie Ashley and features five excellent performances; the playwright is Sarah Gubbins, a finalist in the Alliance Theatre’s prestigious Kendeda Playwriting Competition.

Madi (Park Krausen) is a lawyer and such a lovely, winsome young woman that both men and women become disconnected at the sight of her:  women like Sy (Rachel Garner), a lesbian lawyer who’s been in love with Madi for years; and men like Chris (John Benzinger), who’s also fallen for Madi big time.  Chris’ problem is a classic (one might say stereotypical) one of male inarticulateness about expressing his feelings (“Whenever somebody asks me how I feel, I hear ‘Boom!’–followed by dead air”).  Mr. Benzinger invests his role with great charm; like Big Mama in “Cat,” Chris is not the quickest and brightest soul on earth.

But his rival, Sy, turns out to be his unlikely ally:  Sy can and does wax romantically poetic on her trusty typewriter, and suddenly we have a “Cyrano de Bergerac” situation where she ghostwrites for Chris her passion for Madi (who has rejected Sy’s advances) to vent her frustration and express herself.    And it works very well for Chris—for awhile.

Meanwhile, the firm is handling a client, Don (Tony Larkin), an angst-ridden writer who’s accused of violating the “fair use” principle by possibly plagiarizing the manuscript of a friend in his bestselling Transgressions.  But aren’t all writers “subconsciously informed” by the work of others? It becomes a ticklish and, thanks to the comic talent of Mr. Larkin, amusing problem.

The play has its static moments, especially in the first act, but it’s all redeemed by what I’m calling “the cell phone scene,” (in Act II) which is the most fun I’ve had in a theatre all season.  Madi, on the phone, demands to hear aural evidence of Chris’ true feelings for her; Chris is trapped—except that Sy is standing right beside  him and frantically mouthing words.  It’s not enough:  Sy must grab the phone, lower her voice, and—I’m stopping.  You have to see this. Suddenly this work by fledgling playwright Gubbins becomes great theatre.  Sy and Chris are so deliciously earnest in their lunging awkwardness as they search for love—they’re completely endearing. Bravo to Ms. Garner and Mr. Benzinger.

And what about Ms. Krausen?  With her musical speaking voice and effortless mastery of Madi’s emotional quandary, everything about her onstage is avocado smooth.  She makes plausible Sy’s and Chris’ total enthrallment over her; she doth teach the torches to burn bright, as the Bard says.

The play ends with a great big deus ex machina—an ending too easy and contrived.  But thanks to the cell phone scene and the fine performances, it’s forgivable.  By the way, Laura Kreuger’s performance as an assistant in the law office is a huge asset and lots of fun—as is Fair Use.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.