Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension


Grimm and Noonan H II

Piven Theatre Workshop presents
LATE: A Cowboy Song
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

Rating: ★★

Production Personnel


Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Jessica Thebus
Music: Amy Warren
Sound Design: Andre Pluess
Light Design: J.R. Lederle
Set Design: John Dalton
Costume Design: Janice Pytel
Projections: Stephan Mazurek
Stage Manager: John Kearns
Lawrence Grimm
Polly Noonan
Kelli Simpkins

7 Responses

  1. […] Recently featured on the Huffington Post, here’s Keith’s review of a Sarah Ruhl oldie, LATE: A Cowboy Song. […]

  2. This is one of the worst reviews I have ever read. Seriously? The review both admits to not really understanding what a reviewer does and to having never seen any of the playwrights work. Yet, his words are posted here as a credible review. This is review and the reviewer is a joke and this is an insult to all artists. The person who edits this blog should be embarrassed and apologize to all of the artists of LATE.

    • Hi Jessimina – definitely not embarrassed – instead very proud of our site. My writing team and I work hard to cover and support as much theatre as we can. From the beginning, ChicagoTheaterBlog’s main mission has been to bring more people to Chicago theatre, and we’re continually told that tickets are sold and seats filled via our online coverage. So definitely not embarrassed nor apologetic.

      Nonetheless, thanks for your comments and, more importantly, for supporting the Chicago theatre community.


      Scotty Zacher Editor, ChicagoTheaterBlog

  3. Thanks for the comment. I’m always happy to hear feedback, good or bad.

    I wouldn’t say I’m a joke since I take reviewing very seriously. That’s why I gave much thought as to whether I should review this play in the context of Sarah Ruhl and her body of work or whether I should review the play on its merits and the production’s. I came to the conclusion that my job is the latter.

    This decision is a reflection of my commitment to the audience. I have to assume the audience is not familiar with a playwright’s breadth of work, so therefore I must review a play through a similar lens.

    Also, to say that it is a pre-requisite for a critic to see other works by the same playwright is problematic. Plays are produced all across the country. Some have only been produced once. And you can’t go to the video store and rent a play. Because of this nature of theatre, it is nearly impossible for a critic to see prior works of each playwright before seeing one of his or her play.

    Also, if we as critics were to hold this as a pre-requisite, then only a small percentage of plays would ever get reviewed. And they would all be penned by the same 20 or so playwrights. Therefore, I personally don’t think it is a rule we should establish for ourselves.

    As to your comment about my validity as a theatre critic, I’m going to hand this to Socrates: “The unreflected life is not worth living.” In other words, we should encourage people to question and reevaluate themselves (including theater critics on their roles as critics). But being blindly unwavering in your convictions when challenged is ignorance.

  4. Hmmm. If you’re going to hang your legitimacy as a theatre critic on a Socratic truism, please quote him accurately. “The unexamined is not worth living.”

  5. And so, I misquote the philosopher…ain’t the immediacy of the web grand?

  6. little women movie is a good movie.

    The great director

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