Grand Concourse (Steppenwolf; through August 30)
It probably says more about me than about Grand Concourse that the most wrenching moment in a play involving fatal illness, homelessness, betrayal and a loss of faith came when there was injury to a cat.
But plenty of people who saw Bibi Andersen describe a sexual encounter in Persona swear that they saw the sexual encounter itself, a tribute to the vividness of the writing and the truth of the performance. In the same way, Mariann Mayberry’s rendition of the cat story in Heidi Schreck’s text is so powerful that it feels as if we’re seeing the poor animal right in front of us. Thus my response isn’t Cat Lady idiosyncratic but generated by the play itself.
Grand Concourse tells the stories of Shelley (Mayberry), a nun who runs a soup kitchen, and Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a college dropout volunteering there. The two women are assisted by the janitor Oscar (Victor Almanzar) and visited constantly by the homeless Frog (originally Tim Hopper, now Francis Guinan), and the relationships among the four make up the action of the play.
Unfortunately, until the very end it isn’t clear whose play it is, which makes it hard to invest in the goings-on. Are we watching Emma grow beyond her self-absorption, or Shelley struggle with her faith? Either of these would make a fine focus, but trying to focus on both leaves us with an evening which, as my companion said, “was smart, it was well-written, it was well-performed; but it didn’t move me.” So the moment with the cat was the exception rather than the rule. Though director Yasen Peyankov and his troupe give the play all they’ve got, the play doesn’t have very much to offer in return.
This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro, Oracle. Opens August 21, runs through September 19
Johnard Washington as James Baldwin in This House Believes . . .
This Oracle production debuted at the Washington Park Refectory as part of Theater on the Lake’s second peripatetic summer. This House Believes . . . is Zachary Baker-Salmon’s dramatization of an actual televised debate which took place at the Cambridge Union in 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, speaking respectively for and against the title resolution. The company asks the audience to vote on the proposition before the debate begins and again after its conclusion, to determine whose arguments swayed the most votes.
Under Baker-Salmon’s direction the work is finely performed by Johnard Washington and Jeremy Clark as Baldwin and Buckley, supported by players representing the moderator and other attendees. It’s not clear whether their [scripted] interruptions of the speakers are intended to encourage unscripted contributions from members of the audience; in any case, there weren’t any such outbursts at the performance I saw.
Which is a shame. In at least one respect, 2015 is no different from 1965: no one is willing to address frankly the issues of power and inequality at the heart of America’s race problem. Thus, Baldwin and Buckley alike talk around the issue, more concerned with representing their positions than with explaining them. Buckley’s argument—that in fact black people were better off than they would have been if left un-enslaved in Africa—was more politically acceptable then than now, but not by much; so he talks all around it. Likewise, Baldwin can’t address the question directly because its answer is so self-evident; instead, he has to perform an exaggerated scholarly civility to make even his gentle hints palatable to an audience embodying white privilege in its most florid manifestation.
The actors were, respectively, believably smarmy and believably gracious, but their discussion went nowhere. The excess politeness, the talking around the issue, the pretense that this is a subject on which reasonable people can disagree, interferes with anybody’s actually grasping what’s going on. So all we get is a chance to feel superior to those poor fools from 50 years ago, when we’re actually not. Oracle gets an E for effort (and Earnestness), but fails to advance our understanding of an issue whose misunderstanding continues to tear the country apart.
Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, Windy City Playhouse (through October 4).
The curtain rises on a couple in bed. At the moment of climax, the woman screams out not something sexual but an ethnic slur. This sets in motion what purports to be the contemporary equivalent of Feydeau’s door-slamming farces, with two other couples (one gay, one straight) becoming involved in the argument between the original couple about the true meaning of what was said.
Peter Ackerman’s play, sharply directed by William Brown, never recovers from this initial bad premise. Ethnic slurs are NOT analogous to talking dirty, and any effort to make them so just trivializes their meaning and import. No wonder the whole middle of the play has us chasing the red herring of whether the woman’s partner is gay: that’s familiar territory for bedroom farces. But the resolution, which brings us back to the original ethnic-slur theme, is forced and uncomfortable—as well it should be.
Theater Wit’s Bad Jews demonstrated that there are ways it’s okay to make fun of anti-Semitism; Things You Shouldn’t Say . . . demonstrates there are ways it’s not.