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Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)   

Adapted by Anderson Lawfer and Nikki Klix 
From novel by Eugene Burdick, Harvey Wheeler
Directed by Anderson Lawfer
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
thru Oct 14  |  tickets: $15   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
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Taut and lean staging propels cautionary war-room thriller


Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)


Strawdog Theatre presents



Review by Lawrence Bommer

"Things are in the saddle and rule mankind."  Except for the dated equestrian analogy, Wordsworth’s line is as true today as in 1964, when the evergreen cautionary thriller "Fail/Safe" (as ironic a title as a precaution can be) scared audiences witless over the prospect of accidental nuclear war. Once a novel, twice a film and and now a 70-minute world premiere by Strawdog Theatre Company, this un-outmoded Cold War wake-up call, inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis from two years earlier, warns against our trusting in technology and not in people. Co-adaptor Anderson Lawfer‘s staging is taut and lean, propelling a machine error into seemingly unthinkable disaster.

Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)
Played on a very concentrated runway with video screens depicting the interballistic action as it spreads across the Northern Hemisphere, our three well-detailed settings are a secret "nerve center" in Omaha, a Pentagon war room, and an undisclosed shelter for the President and his Russian translator. The electric exchanges between these locales, as well as off-stage encounters with the Russian premier and his generals, generate enough excitement for a dozen roller-coasters.

Behind the immediate danger is the context of "mutually assured destruction" that remains an ugly inheritance from the supposedly dead Cold War (suddenly recalled by uproars in the Ukrainian state of Crimea). A heated Pentagon argument between a hawkish, Commie-hating professor (Brian Amidei) and a battle-tested, war-loathing general sets the stakes: Do we trust and verify with our thermonuclear foe? Or do we strike first out of fear as much as facts–and let history determine the winner? How do we overcome kneejerk suspicion and xenophobia, refuse to play chicken with Armageddon, and get ahead of the machinery of destruction that’s been in place for almost 70 years? Do our supposedly foolproof instruments of detection and prevention move too fast to control?

Indeed, it’s a glitch from an American sensor that sends a "vindicator" bomber squadron flying toward a "Fail/Safe" rendezvous point in the Bering Sea, then onto its designated targets, passing a point of no return (or call back). No missile strike or submarine launch threatens the future of millions (Tom Clancy took care of that later). No, it’s mechanical error exacerbated by the human kind: Haplessly, the control centers lurch from Condition Blue to Yellow to Green–to Red (as in blood and fire). But, of course, it’s all unconditional.

Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)

Trouble shooting (as in keeping the demon in the lamp), the rational, surprisingly calm President (Tom Hickey) works smoothly with his young interpreter (Conor Burke) to reassure his Russian counterpart that this is a controllable mistake, not a showdown with the trump of doom. At the same time a pesky congressman (Joe Mack) and NORAD staff (Mark Pracht, Stuart Ritter and Lee Russell) contend with their own mounting paranoia and desperate accusations of treason and sabotage. Meanwhile, the painfully passive Pentagon warriors can only react to the world-wide peril that’s been unleashed and seemingly can’t be contained. A little baseball chat between Moscow and Washington leavens the tension and also confirms the embattled humanity at stake on both sides.

You’ll have to reassure yourself that it’s only a play. But, as in any trenchant comedy, the joke’s on us. Ironically, where there are too many layers of "fail-safe box" protections, that much more can go wrong.

Very little goes wrong on the Strawdog stage, no small feat considering the considerable technical and thespian interconnectedness of three seen and one imagined situation rooms. (A few opening night glitches ironically confirm the play’s point about human frailty.) The lesson comes through loud and clear: We’re all responsible for a nightmare that we’ve learned to live with but could easily die from.The epic fail…


Rating: ★★★



Fail/Safe continues through October 14th at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map), with performances Mondays and Tuesdays at 8pm Sundays 12pm and 8pm.  Tickets are $15, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes, no intermission)

Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)

Photos by Tom McGrath 




Brian Amidei (Groeteschele), Conor Burke (Buck), Carmine Grisolia (Black), Jim Heatherly (Swenson), Tom Hickey (President), Joe Mack (Raskob), Mark Pracht (Bogan), Stuart Ritter (Cascio), Lee Russell (Knapp), Dave Skvarla (Stark)

behind the scenes

Anderson Lawfer (director), Mike Mroch (set design), Jordan Kardasz (lighting design), Delia Ridenour (costume design), Heath Hays (sound design), Kyle Hamman (projection design), August Lysy (prop design), Anthony DeMarco (stage manager), Elizabeth Lovelady (assistant director, dramaturg), Rebecca Grossman (production manager), Tom McGrath (photos)

Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)
Review: Fail/Safe (Strawdog Theatre)


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