plus K. raves over Between Riverside and Crazy (her summer home), while J. celebrates Pride Films & Plays’ adaptive reuse of an abandoned space.
We disagree over the nature, purpose and value of Christopher Chen’s newest play (as we did over his last one, Mutt). Then we talk about the Chicago Reader expose of now-defunct Profiles Theater and how to get tickets for Hamilton. Finally J. praises the Saints for their philanthropy as well as their ushering, and K. recommends Constellations at Steppenwolf. A lively week!
We grapple with this world premiere; plus K. picks The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theatre and J. picks Carlyle at the Goodman.
Plus, we preview Mosque Alert, soon to tread the boards at Silk Road Rising.
If women playwrights are neglected nationally (and I have no doubt they are), they’re nonetheless making a strong showing on Chicago stages.
In A Word at Strawdog
Lauren Yee’s 85-minute world premiere throws us into the miserable world of Fiona and Guy (Mary Winn Heider and John Ferrick), a married couple whose child was kidnapped two years before. Fiona is still preoccupied—whether excessively or appropriately, depending on who you ask—with the details of the abduction and presumed death, while Guy is trying to move on. The son appears in flashback, portrayed by Gabe Franken, who also performs every other role including the kidnapper, the detective, the school principal and Guy’s best friend. To convey the stuck condition of the couple, especially Fiona, Yee uses staccato and repetition of words and phrases—“get what’s coming to them,” “difficult” as a euphemism for the most profound problems. The incantatory nature of the dialogue also illustrates the universal point that guilt and secrecy keep people stuck whereas the truth will—or at least, may—set them free. Jess McLeod’s clever staging turns the single set into the half-dozen locations the characters occupy. More important, her direction of the actors assures that we feel every incident as if it were happening to us. A slightly hopeful ending doesn’t keep the situation from being, well, difficult, but it’s also genuine and thoughtful and moving. Heider in particular is so good it’s hard to remember that she’s acting. In A Word closes March 19; don’t let it pass you by.
The Flick at Steppenwolf
Annie Baker won the Pulitzer, the Obie and the Susan Smith Blackburn Playwriting Prize for this slice of life set in a movie theater which has seen better days. It, too, has three main characters and it, too, explores the errors and betrayals which make intimacy so difficult. But there the resemblance ends, as Baker and director Dexter Bullard use 3 hours and 10 minutes to make their points. Bullard secures stunning performances from all concerned–Travis Turner as the college-age movie-lover turned theater janitor, Danny McCarthy as the old hand who trains him and Caroline Neff sometimes allied with one and sometimes with the other. Three is an inherently unstable number in relationships, and Baker captures this in scene after scene—after scene, after scene. The dialogue is wonderfully heard, and resonates as natural speech; but the fact that mopping up a movie theater is a Sisyphean task is clear long before Baker stops reminding us of it. Moreover, it appears she couldn’t think of an ending—or rather, she thought of one and then added several more just in case. The first act is completely absorbing and Jack Magaw’s scenic design is a thing of beauty: you sit down in your theater seat only to find yourself facing rows of theater seats. And the actors are impeccable–Neff’s wild hip-hop dance alone is worth the price of admission. At Steppenwolf through May 8.
Not really solo: Gary serves as interlocutor as K. considers Bruce Norris’s latest peroration on the problems of privileged people (say three times fast). Is the playwright anti-feminist or merely a misanthrope? And why shouldn’t playwrights direct their own work? Then G. and K. jointly mourn the demise of Redmoon.
Plus J. recommends Charm by Northlight at the Steppenwolf Garage.
J. and K. disagree about Steppenwolf’s production of East of Eden, written by Frank Galati and directed by Terry Kinney, and then K. and Gary assess the Shattered Globe revival of Marvin’s Room, directed by original dramaturg Sandy Shinner and written by the late Scott McPherson.
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
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.