The Birthday Party
At the Steppenwolf Theatre(Upstairs)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – When Harold Pinter’s first full length play, “The Birthday Party,” opened in 1958, it received a merciless drubbing from most of the major British critics. They called the play incoherent, incomprehensible, and worse, and the production was a resounding flop.
Today, “The Birthday Party” stands high in the Pinter canon, ranked among the major works of a major dramatist. Audiences still might puzzle over its meanings, but after a half century of exposure to Pinter’s unique style, experienced theatergoers should have a rudimentary grasp of what the man’s works were all about. Those 1958 critics were faced with something they’d never seen or heard before and it confused and angered them.
The Steppenwolf Theatre has had a particularly close relationship to Pinter’s plays. The current revival of “The Birthday Party” marks the ninth play by Pinter the company has staged since 1976 (“The Caretaker” twice). The Steppenwolf has so much confidence in presenting “The Birthday Party” that it’s scheduled the work for a healthy three-month run and gathered a glittering ensemble of A list performers from the extensive Steppenwolf acting and directing pool.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
“The Birthday Party” is set in a lower middle class boarding house in an English seaside town. The first act begins with typically laconic Pinterian dialogue. Petey and Meg, the owners of the house, sit at breakfast, exchanging banalities. They have a single boarder, a young man named Stanley, who soon makes an appearance, unshaven and shabbily dressed in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Stanley is irritable, criticizing Meg’s cooking and housekeeping, and generally acting like a boor.
Stanley’s attention perks up when Meg mentions that two men have inquired about booking rooms in the house. The men eventually make an appearance and the characters, and spectators, are submerged in a Pinterian world where things seem commonplace on the surface but sinister and dangerous underneath.
The men are named Goldberg and McCann. The Jewish Goldberg is a breezy man, filled with chat, a hail-fellow-well-met. McCann, a Roman Catholic from Ireland, is dour and says little. This odd couple has been sent by some nameless organization to take Stanley away for some unspecified psychological treatment. Stanley resists for a time but finally departs, in an almost catatonic state, with his two stalkers. Before their departure, Goldberg and McCann put Stanley through a verbally violent interrogation, firing off questions and comments with ferocious speed—“When did you last pray?” “Why did you change your name?” “What About Ireland?” “You stink of sin.”
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The pressure of rounding up Stanley takes a toll on his two pursuers. Before leaving with Stanley, Goldberg turns almost hysterical and fearful. McCann refuses to go up to Stanley’s bedroom to bring the lad down. The men obviously have their own psychological issues.
The play’s language is full of non sequiturs, which particularly antagonized the early reviewers. Even today, spectators might ask themselves why the characters say the things they do in the way they say them. Who are McCann and Goldberg really, and who do they represent? Why is the unimportant-seeming Stanley so important to them? Why does the dramatic temperature of the play shift gears so abruptly, from light comedy to inconsequential talk to plunges into hold-your-breath intensity.
An academic cottage industry has been founded on interpreting Pinter’s dramas. According to one interpretation, Stanley represents an individual who refuses to follow the conventions of society. Goldberg and McCann represent the two major religious traditions of the Western world, Judaism and Catholicism. They are sent to drag Stanley back into the world of conformity, a world Stanley has tried to escape by hiding out in the boarding house.
Viewers can buy into that analysis if they desire. But “The Birthday Party” also holds up well as an exciting pulp thriller, never mind any philosophical speculations. Stanley is on the run from some nameless force and two men track him down and take him away. It doesn’t matter what Stanley has done or who implacably seeks him out. At the end he leaves with his pursuers, yielding without resistance to those who demand his return, and possible punishment. That’s a good enough storyline to keep audiences nailed to their seats.
Director Austin Pendleton has the play completely under control. The famous Pinterian pauses are in place, as well as the abrupt shifts in tone. The dialogue can be leisurely or rapid fire. Characters may sit casually around a table or circle each other around the table like hunters and prey. It may been perplexing but it grows organically out the narrative.
John Mahoney is terrific as Petey, a nondescript man who has the grit to stand up to Goldberg and McCann as they prepare to take Stanley away. Mahoney’s Petey may be ordinary but he’s not intimidated by his two threatening visitors. Ian Barford is likewise outstanding as Stanley, passing through so many emotional changes from domineering and overbearing to panicky, and finally to resignation. Sophia Sinise (the daughter of Gary Sinise) does well as Lulu, the saucy young neighbor girl who is nearly raped by Goldberg during the frenzy of Stanley’s birthday party.
I had problems with the other three performances. It was great to see Moira Harris back on a Steppenwolf stage after an absence of almost 15 years. She captured Meg’s almost childlike eagerness to please but her performance is a little mannered in its abundance of physical and verbal tics.
Marc Grapey is so withdrawn and glum as McCann that he barely registers as a distinct personality. Frances Guinan plays Goldberg in a natty three-piece suit. He is a very gentile looking and sounding Goldberg and his references to gefilte fish and shabbos sound odd, if not comical. I was fortunate to see a then young Mike Nussbaum playing Goldberg in a late 1960’s production of “The Birthday Party” at the fabled Hull House Theatre. Nussbaum’s Goldberg was pure East End London, his performance so humorous and disturbing that it still remains vivid in my memory. I missed that ethnic richness in Guinan’s otherwise resourceful performance.
The Upstairs Theater at Steppenwolf has been reconfigured to place the spectators in two sections facing each other. The action is set in a room dominated by dining table, an atmospheric location designed by Walt Spangler. Rachel Anne Healy designed the costumes,, Keith Parham the lighting, and Josh Schmidt the sound and original music.
Patrons never exposed to “The Birthday Party” should find the Steppenwolf revival sufficiently Pinterian to sustain their close attention through its three acts. The show is a forerunner of the great Pinter plays that follow with their inimitable “comedy of menace.” The playwright may baffle the viewer, but he remains a spellbinder.
“The Birthday Party” runs through April 28 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with some 3 p.m. matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets are $20 to $78. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com February 2013
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Time Stands Still
At the Steppenwolf Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Time Stands Still” has only four characters and a single set, but it covers an immense amount of dramatic ground, exploring personal matters of love and commitment while addressing larger public issues connected to our attitudes toward war and violence.
The play can be seen in an impeccably acted and directed production at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre. The staging reaffirms Donald Margulies as America’s greatest, and most underappreciated, playwright under the age of 60.
Sarah Goodwin is a famous American photojournalist who travels the world taking pictures of wars and atrocities. At the beginning of the play, she is returning to her loft in Brooklyn to recover from massive injuries suffered by a roadside bomb in Iraq. She is tended by her lover of nearly nine years, a journalist named James Dodd. Welcoming Sarah back is her former lover, Richard Ehrlich, a middle-aged photo editor at a news magazine. Ehrlich is accompanied by Mandy Bloom, a well meaning but gauche young woman fervently in love with Ehrlich.
Sarah is a skilled and dedicated photographer, but is she a war and violence junky, emotionally distancing herself from the horrors she sees by hiding behind her camera? Sarah claims her pictures can be forces for good by displaying to the world the brutality of war and violence. She could be a hero or just a voyeur of violence and suffering. In spite of the effectiveness of her photos, how much good will they really do? Can a photographer, however brilliant, even begin to ease the pain and violent death that have been a part of human history forever?
On a personal level, James is dealing with the guilt he feels for collapsing emotionally in Iraq and leaving the country weeks before Sarah got blown up by the car bomb. Richard is forced to defend his romance with the naïve Mandy, a woman young enough to be his daughter. James feels betrayed by Richard’s inability to get an article on refugees in the news magazine. Relationships are tested and in the case of Sarah and James, ultimately realigned.
Margulies injects some vigorous debates about the ambiguous
moral nature of the press coverage of violence. The highly sensitive Mandy
angrily wants to know why Sarah didn’t put her camera down and help the wounded
instead of taking their picture. Sarah replies calmly that it’s her job to
photograph images of devastation and suffering so people like Mandy can take
action. But Mandy responds that she’s just one average person, powerless to
reduce anyone’s suffering. Is that a
fact or a copout?
James decides he wants a normal existence, away from the dangers of life on the edge. But Sarah can’t settle for a normal lifestyle, watching television and having babies. She needs the rush of putting her life on the line in the world’s hot spots. She’s seen and endured too much to fit herself into a safe and predictable everyday life. So she prepares to depart again, alone, to photograph humanity at its worst.
Margulies’s writing is continuously intelligent and challenging and often very funny. The four characters are all passionate in their beliefs but they speak as individuals, not as mouthpieces for the playwright’s agenda. Sarah, James, Richard, and Mandy come into conflict but they are decent people. During the course of the play they undergo seismic shifts in their assorted relationships but each ends up more or less happy with the ways things worked out.
Sally Murphy is superb as the prickly and committed Sarah Randall. Newsome is outstanding as the conflicted James, trying to deal with multiple emotional traumas. Francis Guinan is excellent as Richard, a generous and humorous man who agonizes over the fissures that eventually divide him from Sarah and James. Kristina Valada-Viars is terrific as Mandy, the most difficult role in the show. She takes a character that could be a ditsy butt of everyone’s humor and turns her into a sympathetic, caring person, just out of her depth amid the worldliness and emotional intensity surrounding her.
Austin Pendleton’s directing strikes just the right tone of realism and never allows the debates over moral issues to descend into preaching. Walt Spangler designed the wonderfully detailed loft set. Rachel Anne Healy designed the costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, and Josh Schmidt is responsible for the sound design and original music.
“Time Stands Still” runs through May 13 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday performances through April 8 only. There are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. from April 11 through May 9. Tickets are $20 to $78. Call 312 335 1650.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. January 2012
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Sex with Strangers
At the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Sex with Strangers” is a conventional male-female romantic story brought into the Social Network age. The two-hander starring Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy is playing at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre. It’s the work of Laura Eason, a former Chicago actress and writer with close ties to the Lookingglass Theatre now living in New York City and trying to make it as a playwright in the Big Apple.
“Sex with Strangers” opens on a wintry day in a bed and breakfast in Michigan. Olivia, a 30-something writer, is working on a manuscript when a brash young man named Ethan knocks on the door, talks his way into the living room, and after several abrasive exchanges of dialogue, has sex with the woman.
After this improbable whirlwind beginning, the play fills in the back stories of the two characters. Ethan is 24 years old and a highly successful blogger, making the New York Times online best seller list for months with a serialized book called “Sex with Strangers,” a presumably nonfiction account graphically detailing how he slept with almost 100 women. Ethan is a superstar in the blogger world while Olivia struggles with her self confidence and self esteem trying to rekindle her career as a writer after the success of a single book. The book is now out of print and Olivia is without a publisher and agent. Ethan is on the ascending curve toward fame and fortune while Olivia wallows at the bottom, paralyzed by insecurity from even showing her new book to a possible publisher.
Under Ethan’s prodding, Olivia finally submits her book to an agent and, low and behold, she strikes gold, a contract with a prestigious publishing house to publish her book electronically and a movie deal in the works. But Olivia’s success shifts the balance of power with Ethan and hard words are exchanged, leading to estrangement. The play’s final moment shows Olivia standing at her open apartment door, agonizing over whether to join Ethan or cut him off completely and marrying another man. If this gives away too much of the storyline, so be it. The love affair is the least interesting aspect of the play.
“Sex with Strangers” (the title of Ethan’s blogged book) is at its best exploring the culture of electronic networking. Olivia plays by old fashioned rules, which don’t apply to Ethan’s free-wheeling world. He freely admits he fabricated much of the material in his autobiographical book, and even wrote some of the critically enthusiastic blurbs himself. There isn’t much moral high ground in Ethan’s blogging world, and not many social graces either. He can’t hold a conversation with Olivia without dividing his attention with his continuously active handheld email device.
Olivia is appalled by how Ethan exploits his female subjects in “Sex with Strangers,” while Ethan points out the women were volunteers and even wrote about their seduction in their own blogs. It’s a strange worldview that Olivia can’t understand or accept. She laments the over-proliferation of information that allows an individual to access mountains of facts about another individual before a first date, though many of those facts may be falsified. Olivia yearns for the days when a male and a female met without prior knowledge of each other, developing a rapport at their own pace of discovery.
Audience members in their early and mid 20’s will recognize Ethan’s communications universe as their own. Many older folks may shake their collective heads at the way the Internet has changed society, both in technology and in the way people view each other. What took a certain measure of time a few years ago can be accomplished in an electronic instant today. The images of people twittering and Facebooking and emailing and talking continuously on cell phones are part of the social atmosphere we breathe.
is an actor with a strong physical presence. He is built like a small
linebacker and radiates physical confidence. His Ethan may not have impressive
intellectual skills but he is royalty in the society of the blogger, a sense of
empowerment and entitlement Grush projects with easy authority. Grush’s Ethan
also has the animal sexual attraction to sweep a vulnerable woman like Olivia
off her feet. I suspect there is a Stanley Kowalski role in Grush’s future, a
performance that will be well worth seeing.
Murphy nicely delineates Olivia’s blossoming from the withdrawn and angst ridden woman of the first scenes into a liberated individual who finds success within her reach and won’t let it escape, no matter how much her lover admonishes her. I hope Olivia rejects Ethan for good. He won’t ever let her be her own woman and I doubt Ethan is a one-woman man anyhow.
The play is performed within Todd Rosenthal’s two highly detailed interior sets. Ana Kuzmanic designed the costumes (which do not flatter Olivia). J.R. Lederle designed the lighting and Andre Pluess and Kevin O’Donnell the sound and original music. Jessica Thebus directs unobtrusively, allowing the action and issues to unfold realistically in a cluster of short scenes.
“Sex with Strangers” runs through May 15 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday matinees will be added in April and May. Tickets are $20 to $73. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. January 2011
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At the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago - “The Brother/Sister Plays” elevated Tarell Alvin McCraney into the international spotlight as a hot new playwright while he was still in his 20’s. McCraney wrote the three plays at different times and they have been packaged into a unified cycle, now receiving its local premiere in an astonishingly right production at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
The cycle consists of one extended play called “In the Red and Brown Water” and a pair of one-acters, “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or, The Secret of Sweet.” All three plays take place in the Louisiana bayous and though they cover three generations among a group of connected characters, the time frame is fixed in the “distant present.”
McCraney is an African American and his plays deal with black characters (a white man plays a small role in “In the Fred and Brown Water”). The plays have no obvious social agenda, instead exploring themes of love, loss, and identity in a personal manner.
The three plays vary in tone, though they share major theatrical and dramatic elements. In all three plays the characters speak the stage directions directly to the audience, initially a distraction that the spectators quickly accept as part of the fabric of the plays, an extension of the dialogue. There are mythic components to the plays, especially in the longer work. Characters have names from the Yoruba people of Africa. There is ritualistic dancing, and choral music that alternates between African percussion and tribal chants and African American spirituals.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is the most imaginative and poetic play in the cycle, portraying the emotional turbulence within a young woman named Oya who longs for a baby she cannot conceive. Two local men compete for her affections but she ends up isolated in her own dream world. “The Brothers Size” is the most realistic, a three-hander involving two brothers, one just paroled from jail, and a third man who is the parolee’s best friend also just released from jail.
The final play focuses on Marcus, a 16-year old boy, the son of two characters from the previous plays. Marcus wonders about his sexual identity (he senses that he is gay), an issue that preoccupies everyone around the lad.
McCraney writes in a distinctive voice that is especially striking in a dramatist so young. His language bursts with passion and eloquence, and even with some humor in the “Marcus” play. It’s impossible to assess how much of the success of “The Brother/Sister Plays” resides in the skill of the playwright and how much with the remarkable acting and staging at the Steppenwolf. McCraney’s way with words and character creation is impressive, but the nine-member Steppenwolf ensemble under Tina Landau’s endlessly insightful directing makes every scene golden.
The three plays are performed on a large rough-hewn platform stage, framed by a backdrop that reinforces the backwoods atmosphere of the locale. There are sound effects and dramatic lighting and some projections but little scenery. This is an actor's play and they come at the audience from the stage and up and down the aisles.
The cycle’s tone shifts from naturalism to fantasy (dreams play a large part in the narrative). There isn’t so much a coherent plot as a sequence of storytelling episodes that stake out defining moments in the lives of the central characters.
Audiences can see the plays in two separate showings, the longer play and the two one-acters, or the cycle is available in one day and night marathon on weekends, with the matinee and evening showings separated by a dinner break. Viewers can attend the plays as stand-alone dramas in any order, though in the narrative chronology “In the Red and Brown Water” comes first, followed by “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus.”
The plays should probably be seen in the day/night set that allows the spectator to enjoy the rhythms of the action and dialogue and relate to the characters without interruption. The plays do run a cumulative four hours and the concluding “Marcus” is too long for its slender premise, likely testing the viewer’s attention span at the end of the evening.
But one way or the other, these plays need to be seen, partly to witness the talent of an emerging new presence on the drama scene. But as just as vital is the opportunity to enjoy the wondrous production, delivered with such credibility and authority that the plays appear to emerge spontaneously before the audience in the only form they could possibly assume.
In alphabetical order, the ensemble consists of Alena Arenas, Phillip James Brannon, Roderick Covington, Glenn Davis, K. Todd Freeman, Ora Jones, Jeff Parker, Tamberla Perry, and Jacqueline Williams. Some of these names should be familiar to local audiences, especially Freeman, Jones, and Williams, but they all soar in their acting, singing, and dancing, like they were born to star in their roles.
The flawless physical production has been created by James Schuette (set and costumes), Scott Zielinski (lighting), and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound).
“The Brother/Sister Plays” run in repertoire through May 23 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $70. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
The cycle gets a rating of four stars. January 2010Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
At the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Art” isn’t the type of play the public expects at the Steppenwolf Theatre. It’s a language driven comedy, a major hit to be sure in Paris, London, and New York in the 1990’s, but still a comedy and a considerable departure from the Steppenwolf tradition of edgy physical in-your-face dramas.
No matter. The Steppenwolf production is terrific and “Art” is a literate and intelligent play that explores enough stimulating ideas to keep an audience engaged for its 80-minute intermissionless duration.
“Art” displays three self-absorbed male characters. The action rotates among their three apartments somewhere in France over an indeterminate period of time. Serge, Marc, and Ivan have been friends for many years. Now that friendship could be fractured because Serge has purchased a painting by a trendy contemporary artist named Antrios for the extravagant price 200,000 francs. The painting is 5 feet by 4 feet and consists of an abstract all-white surface with a few barely discernable diagonal lines.
Marc is appalled by Serge’s acquisition, dismissing it with an explicit four-letter word. Marc has been Serge’s mentor for years in matters of taste and culture and he considers the purchase of a painting he considers artistically worthless a betrayal of their friendship.
Caught in the crossfire between Marc and Serge is Ivan, a hyper-emotional and wishy-washy man with his own personal problems revolving around his troublesome upcoming marriage, which both Marc and Serge insist he should cancel. Serge and Marc go round and round for most of the 80 minutes of playing time, trading insults and accusations, at one time coming to blows with the defenseless Ivan caught in the middle.
As the men argue, recriminations escalate in virulence. Serge attacks Marc’s wife as mannered and affected. Both hammer poor Ivan. The all-white painting becomes a bone of contention that could destroy a friendship that obviously means much to all three men.
The play raises aesthetic issues that aren’t new but still worth pondering. The Antrios painting mirrors the minimalist style of numerous twentieth century artists who created monochromatic pictures that some viewers consider a hoax and others rank as masterpieces. So who is to say what is good art and what is trash? Is the difference solely in the eye of the beholder? Yet there must be some standard to measure quality but who sets those standards?
These questions are framed by a script of exceptional wit and zest. The play was written in French by Yasmina Reza. How much of the success of “Art” goes to her and how much to translator Christopher Hampton, himself a major English playwright, I cannot say. In any case, this is my third viewing of “Art” and each time I came away impressed with the droll and pungent dialogue and the issues it raises about art and the nature of friendship.
‘Art” has been installed at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, which provides the proper level of intimacy. Antje Ellermann designed the basically white-on-white set, the location from apartment to apartment changed by the swiveling and sliding of rear panels. Robert Christen’s lighting bathes the production in a complimentary off white glow.
The current cast consists of Francis Guinan as Marc, John Procaccino (who was a standby in the original Broadway production) as Serge, and K. Todd Freeman as Ivan. Later in the run Guinan takes the role of Serge and Ian Barford plays Marc with Joe Dempsey replacing Freeman as Ivan.
Guinan dominates “Art” as the caustic, pompous Marc, but Pracaccino and Freeman both hold up their sides of the triangle. The characters may be too egotistical and narcissistic to be worth knowing in real life, but for 80 minutes they make entertaining and stimulating company.
“Art” runs through June 7 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday with variable curtain times. Tickets are $20 to $70. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. February 2009Contact Dan at email@example.com
At the Steppenwolf Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—William Peterson delivers a committed, honest performance in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Conor McPherson’s 2000 play “Dublin Carol.” It’s not his fault that he is miscast in the role.
“Dublin Carol” is a somber study of a burned out life ravaged by alcoholism. Set in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas Eve, this may be the bleakest Christmas play of our generation. Peterson plays John Plunkett, an Irishman mordantly surveying a life ruined by booze. John now works in a funeral home, saved from a probable alcoholic death by a job provided by Noel, the funeral home director, now lying seriously ill in a Dublin hospital.
Years ago John abandoned his wife and two children for the bottle. Physically he is still alive but spiritually he’s been at death’s door for years. The play is an 80-minute one-acter that portrays in three scenes the appalling state of John’s life and the very faint possibility that he could be regenerated in the future.
Each scene is a two-hander between the loquacious John and another character. The first and third scenes involve John and Mark, the 20-year old nephew of the funeral home director and John’s assistant. Mark is a decent, soft-spoken lad with troubles of his own as he tries to disengage from a relationship with a young woman.
The middle, and strongest, scene pits John against his daughter, Mary. The young woman has to come to the funeral home to tell her father that his wife is dying in a local hospital. She wants John to visit the woman but John resists. He uses his self-loathing as a shield against doing the right thing by the wife he hasn’t seen in years.
John wallows in his own misery over his lost life, partly blaming a dysfunctional family background in which he watched his father brutally abuse his mother while John was a boy. John’s inability to come to his mother’s aid adds one more log onto the pyre of John’s self disgust.
The problem with Peterson’s performance is not in its integrity. Peterson is just too virile for the role, his stage presence too commanding. Ideally John should be a man who looks old and beaten down by life. I never got the sense that Peterson’s John was destroyed by alcohol. Indeed, the virile Peterson looks like he could drink any fellow boozer under the table without working up a sweat.
Without clear evidence of the havoc that whiskey has wreaked on John Plunkett, the audience has problems connecting with John’s desperation, defeat, and despair. And it’s the man’s tortured, embittered personality that holds the play together. The production at the Steppenwolf lacks a dramatic arc. It’s mostly a set of conversions and monologues that don’t get the action moving in any particular direction. The writing is fluent, and often humorous, but doesn’t take us any place. This is a play much honored both in the United Kingdom and the United States, yet something is missing.
The two supporting characters are ably played by Nicole Wiesner as Mary and Stephen Louis Grush as Mark. Wiesner in particular is exceptional as the daughter victimized by her weak, failure-driven father. She extracts a promise from John to visit his wife and pleads with him to stay sober for the visit. At the end of the play, John waits silently for his daughter to pick him up for the dreaded hospital visit. This is supposed to be the climax of the evening, possibly pointing to a fresh beginning to reverse John’s sense of degradation, defeat, and shame. But the moment doesn’t resonate and the play just stops without an emotional epiphany.
The play is directed by Amy Morton, who first directed Peterson in the role in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2006. Kevin Depinet designed the effective grungy funeral home set. Ana Kuzmanic designed the costumes, Robert Christen the lighting, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen the sound.
“Dublin Carol” runs through December 28 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30 and Saturday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $70. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. November 2008Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
at the Steppenwolf Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—At the beginning of Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone, “ a thirty-something woman is reading a book alone in a café. She hears a cell phone ringing at the table next to her but the occupant of the table, a man with his back to the audience, doesn’t answer. Increasingly annoyed at the relentless ringing, she goes over to the table to ask the man to please pick up his call. But the man is dead.
The woman has two choices, to simply notify the café manager that there is a corpse in the establishment, or to answer the cell phone herself. Of course, if she doesn’t answer the phone, there is no play, which may not be such a bad thing. By answering the deceased man’s phone, the woman takes the audience on a 1 hour and 45 minute journey that’s cutesy, confusing, and pretentious.
That’s just one opinion. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” has played throughout the country and received numerous complementary reviews. I just wish I’d seen the play those critics admired so much. The Steppenwolf Theatre is presenting the Ruhl play in a stylish, well-acted production, so it’s not the staging that’s at fault, it’s the script.
Ruhl’s has been frequently presented by top tier Chicago theaters in recent seasons. Last season the Goodman Theatre offered her comedy drama “The Clean House,” another well-reviewed work whose merits totally eluded me. Ruhl’s advocates admire her quirky blend of the everyday and the offbeat and her kooky thrusts into profundity. In that spirit, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is prime Ruhl, take it or leave it.
The woman who answers the cell phone in the café is named Jean. She starts taking all the calls directed to Gordon, the dead man, and soon embarks on a mission to minister to the grief of those he left behind, largely by inventing stories about how each one of them was in Gordon’s thoughts at the moment of his passing. The cell phone thus becomes a living organism, connecting the dead man with his relatives and business associates.
The second act opens with an off-the-wall monologue delivered by Gordon from beyond the grave. We learn that he deals in the international sale of human organs. He sees himself as a benefactor to his clients but he comes across as a bit of a sleaze ball.
Meanwhile, Jean, like a ministering angel, is moving through Gordon’s earthy survivors, namely his mistress, his mother, his wife, and his brother. They are all thrilled that Gordon remembered them so fondly at the instant of his death, thanks to Jean’s white lies, because none of them felt much warmth for the man while he lived since he wasn’t very nice to them.
The second act eventually careens off the rails into fantasy. Jean apparently is murdered in an airport while trying to fly to South Africa to donate a kidney. She is united with Gordon in an afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell, just a sort of place. Finally, Jean returns to earth, alive, and resumes her whirlwind affair with Gordon’s brother, Dwight.
By this time my patience for the evening was exhausted. The narrative comes across like the performers are making it up as they go along. Whatever early points the playwright might be making about the cell phone as a symbol of vanished privacy and mechanical intrusion in our daily lives has been buried in all the whimsy of the second act. The only question remaining at the final blackout was, “What’s the point?”
Mary Louise Parker played Jean in the New York City production and one can see how Parker’s unique ditsy stage personality could bring the character alive. The Steppenwolf casts Peggy Noonan as Jean, a fine choice. Noonan doesn’t attempt Parker’s elusive weird persona but she carries a charming aura of innocence that is very endearing.
The rest of the cast does well in two-dimensional roles. Marc
Grapey is outstanding in his second act scenes as Gordon, partly because he is
a fine actor and partly because he’s given the most humorous and stimulating
lines to deliver. Mary Beth Fisher as Gordon’s wife, Molly Regan as his mother,
Sarah Charipar as the mistress, and Coburn Goss as Dwight all maximize their
opportunities to be slightly bizarre.
Jessica Thebus directs the script like she knows exactly what Ruhl wants. Her staging is fluent and she mines whatever fanciful comedy lies embedded in the dialogue. Scenic designer Scott Bradley, in tandem with lighting designer James F. Ingalls, has created an all-purpose set that resembles an Edward Hopper painting, with its atmosphere of melancholy, isolation, and lack of communication. Presumably the set is a visual equivalent for the philosophical points Ruhl wants to make, but the set works far better than the written word here. Linda Roethke designed the costumes and Andre Pluess created the sound and original music.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs through July 27 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. There will also be Wednesday 2 p.m. performances on June 25 and throughout July. Tickets are $20 to $68. Call 312 335 1650.
The show gets a rating of 2 ½ stars. April 2008
For more information contact: www.steppenwolf.org
Contact Dan Zeff: email@example.com