With his gig at the Steppenwolf Theatre now seemingly an annual event, Tony Fitzpatrick is taking on the air of Garrison Keillor, and his motley crew of sidekicks is looking a bit like a cut-rate cast of "Prairie Home Companion." As seen from the back of a Damon Avenue bus.
Granted, the gruff Fitzpatrick won't ever be sponsored by Powdermilk Biscuits, even the most generous critic would never describe him as silver-tongued and he surely does not do Minnesota nice. And if you're looking for polish or dynamism, keep looking.
His latest show, which features 105 minutes or so of monologues, travelogues, musical interludes from singer Lynne Jordan, zesty guitar work from John Rice and little bits of video art forged from Fitzgerald creations by Kristin Reeves, does not feature conventional theatrical rhythms. Rather it ebbs and flows, amping up and cooling off. There's food for thought, but the whole collage-like affair is also remarkably relaxing; there is even a healthy pause for libations in its midst.
Fitzpatrick is, of course, a Chicagoan through and through. The backdrop of his life and work is this city — and those whom Fitzpatrick considers its true cultural guardians. He talks lovingly of Lin Brehmer, Rick Kogan and, as always, Studs Terkel, whom he says is "always there," somewhere on that emblematic CTA chariot bearing Fitzpatrick up, down, or across town, tracing its major arteries and fighting off its enemies, even if those enemies think they're big box-store superheroes.
In this episode of the Fitzpatrick oeuvre, Tony and longtime sidekick Stan Klein (who, like all in this show, plays only himself) go off on a road trip across America, encountering the toxic AM dial, filled with very different kinds of talkers from Fitzpatrick's approved form of lefty yakking. They muse behind the wheel (a nicely cheesy video backdrop has them in front of the same rust-belt roadscape, wherever they may wander), chatting about life, death, America, love, hate, heroics and Chicago.
Elsewhere in the show, Fitzpatrick also takes off for Istanbul, returning with stories of a big, badly behaved Chicagoan in the Grand Bazaar, a mark for tube socks sold by those whose verbal acuity greatly exceeds Fitzpatrick's own skills. But then life, as Fitzpatrick allows, does not offer an equitable set of rewards.
As previously, Fitzgerald works with the director Ann Filmer, who has given this year's show far more shape than was the case last summer. Filmer certainly lets Tony be Tony, so to speak (no choice there). But unlike the rough-and-ready Tony that showed up last year, this newer model is surprisingly disciplined and, by his standards, taut. You leave with a sense of a coherent theme: Fitzpatrick turns away from religion because he feels it was handed to him in Catholic School in Chicago on the back of fear, only to discover, somewhere in Turkey, that faith can also flow from hope and aspiration. He does not really know what to do with this revelation, but you sense the further emergence from Fitzpatrick's once-angry shell of a big, romantic, Chicago softie, which is, after all a key component of all great Chicago writers, artists and poets.
One hopes this little repertory company develops further. The snatches of song heard from Jordan, and drawn from the themes of Fitzpatrick's mixed-media art, need lengthening into more satisfying songs. Stan, who lands somewhere between Fitzpatrick's assistant, enabler and his Ed McMahon, could challenge the big guy more. His ego needs it. But for all of the digressions, idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, the writing here is really solid. Quite lovely, in spots. After a tough week's work, "Stations Lost" is kind of like a slow detox, with a surviving Chicago bite. It ends with people dancing on concrete, awkwardly but quite happily. In Chicago, it's nice out for a while.
When: Through July 24
Where: Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $22 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.