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David Lissner
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Pistachio nuts and backyard barbecues on Chicago stages

Jesse J. Perez, Geoff Packard, Hollis Resnik and Lauren Molina, clockwise from left, in “Candide.” (Photo by Liz Lauren.)

Jesse J. Perez, Geoff Packard, Hollis Resnik and Lauren Molina, clockwise from left, in “Candide.” (Photo by Liz Lauren.)

‘Candide,’ ‘Detroit’ and free theater in Chicago

I first read Voltaire’s “Candide” in high school. The 18th-century coming-of-age story is a biting satire on the subject of Optimism. Taught by the philosopher Pangloss to believe that everything always happens for the best, the young Candide receives a rude awakening when he’s thrust into the world and undergoes a wide variety of horrible adventures. Voltaire’s tone is deeply satirical, and I found it hard to see the humor in the optimists’ continued insistence that amid wars, earthquakes, murders, disease, thievery and unspeakable brutality, this is the best of all possible worlds.

I read the novella again last week, and although I understood and appreciated it far more than at my youthful reading — it gets better the better you know the world — I still had trouble with finding the comedy in the book. On stage, however, Goodman Theatre’s new production deftly brings Voltaire’s cynical humor forward.

Full of wry references to the present day (“intelligent design,” for instance), clever staging and impeccable acting, Goodman Theatre’s revival features music from the 1956 Leonard Bernstein masterpiece and the world premiere of a new book by Mary Zimmerman, who also directs.

Goodman is promoting this show as a “musical,” and Zimmerman tried hard for a musical-comedy feel, but you can’t away from the fact that it’s really an operetta. Played by an abbreviated, 12-piece orchestra, led by Doug Peck, Bernstein’s marvelous score doesn’t receive the lavish treatment it deserves — a disappointment to classical-music and grand-opera lovers — but it comes through well enough to be thoroughly enjoyable, especially with the fine tenor of boyishly handsome Geoff Packard and the sweet if sometimes thin soprano of lovely Lauren Molina as the young optimist Candide and his beloved Cunegonde.

The lyrics, by Richard Wilbur, with help from Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein, are often a real hoot. Veteran Chicago actors Larry Yando, as the ever-persevering Pangloss, and, especially, Hollis Resnik, as the Old Lady with only one buttock, all but steal the show with deftly comic performances that really reveal what “Candide” is all about:

Life isn’t all preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.

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Kevin Anderson in “Detroit.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Kevin Anderson in “Detroit.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Eating together is a universal means of bonding. That’s the strong point I came away with from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s world premiere of “Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour.

Although I can’t recommend the whole of this inchoate dark comedy, it does have its moments. The story has nothing to do with the city of Detroit — the title is apparently a metaphor referring to the phenomenon of suburbia, made possible by automakers. The play explores the burgeoning relationship between two couples, new neighbors in an older, first-ring suburb. b>Ian Barford and Laurie Metcalf play Ben and Mary, an out-of-work banker and his alcoholic wife, while Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington portray the newcomers, Kenny and Sharon, an odd young couple who say they met at drug-rehab center and don’t seem to possess any furniture.

On a beautifully detailed backyard set by Kevin Depinet, two couples bond when the older pair invites their new neighbors over for a couple of barbecues. Ben grills steaks and Mary fusses over her presentation of hors d’oeuvres such as fresh tomatoes with special pink salt and caviar from Norway. The younger couple, despite their inadequate accouterments, nevertheless feel compelled to respond with a dinner invitation of their own. Ken chars burgers while Sharon presents her special “white trash” appetizers including cheese spread from a can.

Eventually it all falls apart in a sophomoric drunken party, and Sharon and Kenny turn out not to be quite what they seem, but I was struck by the focus on hospitality and how, no matter how far apart they are, people come together over food.

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Free Night of Theater: Click the link, and you can get two free tickets to see a play this month. New blocks of tickets will be released every Tuesday morning throughout the month of October.

Goodman Theatre’s ‘Candide’

Theater: Goodman Theatre in the Loop.

Showtimes: Through Oct. 31 (call for schedule).

Tickets: $25–85.

Dining: It’s the obvious choice, but Petterino’s is as close to the theater as you can possibly get, you can leave your car with their valet while at the show, they’re practiced at getting you out in time for the curtain and the American menu is comprehensive.

Deals: Mezzanine tickets at half price (promo code: MEZZTIX) and $10 student tickets may be available on the day of performance after 10 a.m. online or after noon at the box office.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s ‘Detroit’

Theater: Steppenwolf Theatre in Lincoln Park.

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 7 (call for exceptions).

Tickets: $20–73.

Dining: North Halsted Street offers a wealth of choices. Vinci is a neighborhood standby for Italian fare.

Deals: $20 day-of-performance seats available at the box office at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. Sundays; half-price rush tickets may be available one hour before curtain time.