Dana Delany is an actress with guts, that’s for sure.
Network dramas like “China Beach,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Body of Proof,” all high points of the glamorous Delany’s prime-time TV career, represent a genre that has lost its mass audience to a streaming stew of niche, elite and low-rent fare, but an actress of her talent still could be sailing happily along in her 60s.
You know, doing guest star roles, or poignant Irish dramas, or easy Broadway cameos, or something.
She most certainly does not have to put herself, and her mistakes and insecurities, out there in Chicago as she does in the wildly risky and indisputably fascinating new theatrical confessional “Highway Patrol” at the Goodman Theatre.
Most artists who draw from their actual lives for a show — “What the Constitution Means to Me” comes to mind — do so to share political ideas or powerful personal revelations. They ask the audience to follow along and catch up with them. They’re in charge of their own story.
In contrast, Delany’s show invites the audience to feel superior to the star for two hours straight.
I kept asking myself if I’d ever seen anything comparable. Not sure I ever have, although Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” also seen at the Goodman, comes closest.
“Highway Patrol” was cocreated by Delany, the writer Jen Silverman, the director Mike Donahue and the designer Dane Laffrey, and also features Dot-Marie Jones and Thomas Murphy Molony. It begins with the star taking to Twitter circa 2011 to promote “Body of Proof,” in which she plays medical examiner Megan Hunt, and interacting with fans at the network’s behest.
Delany, who plays herself, starts to hear from a self-described 13-year-old Cam (Molony) in Costa Rica and, over time, through a series of ever-intensifying tweets, direct messages and emails — Delany having failed to pay a lot of attention to her own privacy or security — the star and the fan become close. Very close.
He’s terminally ill, he tells her, drawing her ever deeper into his life, even putting his grandmother (Jones) on the virtual line to offer timely medical updates and more. To say that Delany empathizes with the kid is to understate how much the relationship, creepy as it becomes, means to her.
This is where reviewing this show gets tricky.
“Highway Patrol” is set up as a mystery and I’m loathe to spoil anyone’s discoveries. But I think it’s fair to say that we all intuit this Cam is not all that he seems a good deal more quickly than the catfished star. And it’s in this area that the piece needs more work.
Simply put, the sustaining central question of the show shouldn’t be “What is happening?,” which I think is more obvious than the creators think; it needs to be “Why?”
Although they mostly come too late in the show, there are hints of the crushing loneliness of TV stardom, of being a commodity making a lot of money for other people, of the stresses and strains that come with fame and 16-hour shooting days, of how seemingly massively successful people still carry their own losses with them. And in the best moments, we get a sense of how celebrity upends normalcy, of how the weird fusion of access and remove in the world of TV, creates a kind of fake intimacy that fights with how the humans on both sides of the equation naturally respond.
Interestingly, we also have a rare study here of the early days of social media, when its pernicious self was yet to be fully revealed and thus the Delanys of the world were more vulnerable. How soon we forget.
But there is so much further to go with all that stuff. Delany’s show needs to range beyond Delany and, weird as it sounds, that means in practice that she will have to explain yet more about herself to give us the context of what made her so astonishingly vulnerable so we can understand it for ourselves. That’s the nub and the key to the full development of the piece.
“Highway Patrol” is the work of an artistically sophisticated team and, although this feels like a work in progress, Laffrey’s digital visuals are highly arresting and little works of art in themselves. It should also be clear by now that this is a very meta experience, something Jones, who herself was a star as Coach Beiste on “Glee,” also embraces to her great credit. Young Molony stands his ground, too.
The piece mostly just needs more text, more biography, more analysis of the state of being famous enough for it to be both seductively intrusive but not famous enough to have Taylor Swift-like protections.
The show has no idea how to end at present and it veers off into a different issue, really, when it should stay on point. And it certainly does not need to offer us conclusionary comfort; in many ways, that’s falling into the very trap it decries.
All that said, this is already a must-see for Delany fans, I’d say. I kept wondering all night if she had decided to do this show without fully thinking through where it might lead and then hoping she could jump off that train, but in fact could not.
At this point, she should ride it at dangerous speed all the way into what’s likely to be, and should be, a Broadway station. Good for her. Her armor should be universal truths about what celebrity social media has wrought.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Highway Patrol” (3 stars)
When: Through Feb. 18
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $25-$90 at 312-443-3800 and www.goodmantheatre.org