The world premiere of “When Harry Met Rehab” has all the ingredients of a modern tv sitcom. Besides the unfortunately jokey title and the tagline “a comedy that takes sobriety seriously,” the 90-minute play brings together a situation fraught with comic (and tragic) possibilities, a group of quirky characters prone to interesting interactions and a poignant script punctuated by plenty of punchy one-liners.
Loosely based on the experiences of Chicago sports radio personality Harry Teinowitz, and co-written by him and Spike Manton, the story of his arrest for a DUI a decade ago unfolds in the first person. Harry, ingratiatingly played by Dan Butler (perhaps best known as “Bulldog” for seven seasons on “Frasier”), starts with a litany of alcohol's perils for sports media but makes light of them with quips like “There were Blackhawk games when I had more shots than they did.”
After being arrested and sent to rehab, Harry is in denial. He keeps insisting that he's not an alcoholic and is only submitting to rehab so he can get back his job with ESPN. His therapist, Barb, portrayed with compassionate tough love by Melissa Gilbert (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame) isn't buying it, of course. Having once been an addict herself, she knows all the tricks, and applying a little magic here and there (even literally; the producer is Don Clark, co-owner of the Chicago Magic Lounge) gradually gets Harry to let go of his excuses and engage with the rest of his therapy group .
Introduced to us by him, so we see them through his eyes, they include three men with whom he shares quarters. Vince (Chiké Johnson), a repeat rehabber, is determined to make it this time and not end up drinking himself to death like his father. Isaiah (Keith D. Gallagher) is a former pharmacist with a penchant for pathological lying who became his own best customer. Twentysomething George (Jonathan Moises Olivares) is the youngest and off the wagon more than on.
The sole woman, Andrea (Elizabeth Laidlow), is on her fifth divorce and far from as hardened as she pretends to be. She also opens up the most to Barb, though the most compelling point of the play is how these diverse strangers develop a community and do their best to help each other. That's the secret of why rehab succeeds, Harry seems to be saying, as he comes to accept it as a workable, if imperfect, solution.
While little here is new and much could have been explored in greater depth, director Jackson Gay and the skilled actors elevate the rather stereotypical characters into sympathetic individuals. I was especially taken with Laidlaw's Andrea, who has a compelling speech about how alcoholism is harder on women than men.
The Greenhouse Theater's downstairs mainstage has been put to unusually good use by scenic designer Regina Garcia, whose set switches back and forth between the men's apartment and the therapy room, as well as other locations, with the move of a few pieces of furniture, mostly by the actors themselves. Simean Carpenter's lighting subtly enhances the settings as needed, as does the sound design by Ray Nardelli and Chris Laporte. Caitlin McLeod's costumes include many small changes to mark the passage of time.
Chris Commendatore's projections add an intriguing dimension. They are photos of rehab successes. Each is labeled with the number of years the person has been sober, and one of the actors reads a paper with that person's testimonial. It take a minute to catch on, but these real-life survivors help put Teinowitz's semi-autobiographical account into a larger context.
If you struggle with addiction, or know someone who does, or if you or they have gone through rehab, “When Harry Met Rehab” may be reassuring or at least provide a point of reference. If not, it may still be relevant and worth seeing.