Lucas Neff (right) works on "The Last Duck" with artistic director… (Andrew A. Nelles for RedEye )
When Jackalope Theatre Company stages the world premiere of "The Last Duck" on Thursday and Friday, playwright Lucas Neff probably won't breathe a sigh of relief.
"I'm an expectant parent," Neff said during a recent chat at the Coffee Studio in Andersonville. "I can't wait to be a parent and have this kid, but at the same time I'm terrified of all the unknown things that could happen."
Neff stepped into the unknown when he was cast in the Fox comedy "Raising Hope," in 2010, just two years after graduating from UIC's performing arts program and the School at Steppenwolf. For two seasons now he has played Jimmy Chance, the single father of Hope on the series that co-stars Martha Plimpton, Garrett Dillahunt, Shannon Woodward and Cloris Leachman.
In his down time from the series, the humble 26 year old has been honing another artistic pursuit: writing plays. "The Last Duck," he says, is "maybe the sixth or seventh play that I've written ... and maybe the first decent one."
"The Last Duck" tells the story of an actor, Gerry, who visits the lake house of a playwright, Royall, to inquire about renting it. Through the course of one evening, and the roughly 90-minute play, Gerry and Royall "engage in a battle of whiskey and wits," according to information from Jackalope. The story is set in Chicago, which was important for Neff, who grew up in Andersonville.
"It's a very Chicago play and it's a very me play, I guess, because it's about a Chicago writer and a Chicago actor," he said. He started writing the play as a self-portrait exercise that split his two artistic selves. But it quickly went in unexpected directions.
"It sort of becomes like a morality play," Neff said, adding that it asks questions such as, "If you're put in a very difficult situation what would you do? Would you be guided by your moral principles or those other, less heroic qualities?"
The cast consists of just two actors, Andrew Burden Swanson and Pat Whalen, who will rotate the roles of Gerry and Royall, creating two distinct versions of the play and the need for a two-night “world premiere.” Because the actors had to learn both parts—“I’m so happy to not be up there onstage trying to do this,” Neff joked—director Marti Lyons and the company have been working on the show since January. Neff drove back to Chicago after the current season of “Raising Hope” wrapped in late February to join the production.
As soon as Neff wrapped the current season of "Raising Hope" in late February, he drove back to Chicago with his terriers and a friend to work with the company, whom he said have "been working their tails off around the clock." The process has been painful at times.
"I cut so many of my little darlings," he said, laughing. "Every night I think there is something. I'm trying to get better at being like, 'It just doesn't work, just cut it, don't think about it, just cut it...' I'm trying to embrace that change that happens within the process as opposed to fighting it. I don't know that I'm doing a very good job with it."
Lyons says Neff's been a great collaborator, both answering questions about his work and gaining new insights into the play through others. "It's been very inspiring and energizing to have him in the room, because it's a gamble," said the director, who also serves as literary manager and company dramaturg for Lookingglass Theatre Company. "But we all feel like we've won."
Neff feels like he's won, too, since having his work staged is a "dream come true." But he's under no illusion it will lead to an exciting new career as a playwright.
"Just to see something that was at one point just a little thought in your head become flesh and blood in front of your eyes is kind of scary and cool," he said. "As far as how big it is outside of a personal level I don't know. A lot of that will depend on how much people love it or hate it."
Below are excerpts from my chat with Neff about the process of bringing "The Last Duck" to the stage, his new "entourage" and whether his "Raising Hope" co-stars know what he's up to.
"The Last Duck"
When: 7 p.m. March 22 and 23 (double opening nights) through April 15
Where: Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
Tickets: $15; more info at jackalopetheatre.org
The first time we talked before "Raising Hope" debuted you said you were writing. Has this been something you wanted to do forever, have a play that you wrote produced? (Read "Almost famous: 'Raising Hope' star and Chicago native Lucas Neff")
Absolutely. I didn't write in school. I started writing about a year after graduating mainly to impress a girl that I was dating, and it quickly became like a real legitimate passion. This is maybe the sixth or seventh play that I've written since then and maybe the first decent one, so I'm excited to see if it sinks or swims.