REVIEW: Sex With Strangers (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

The perils of blogging while shagging

  
  

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Sex With Strangers
   
Written by Laura Eason
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Steppenwolf Theatre’s remount of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, which enjoyed its first success during their 2009 First Look Repertory of New Work, is framed as another installment in their seasonal exploration of the public and private self. Now if only Eason’s play had the depth and strength to take on that weighty mantle. As is, Sex with Strangers is a nice and gentle play about an older generation’s discomfort with a younger generation, their new technological toys, and the exponential expansion of sexual frankness as the result of those toys. The play might “spark dialogue” about where the private self has gone in this internet age but it will hardly give body, clarity or insight to that discussion.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.As a result, the play is rather tepid and pleasant but just as easily forgettable. Shy, neurotic and old-school novel writer Olivia (Brenda Barrie for our performance) runs into brash, young, self-promoting blogger Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) at a writer’s retreat. She’s completing her second novel many years after her first and Ethan, who’s compiled his blog of sexual exploits into a bestselling book, has arrived to work on the screenplay for which he already has a Hollywood contract. The scenario is set for seduction—something the audience can see coming a mile away. But Olivia’s seduction isn’t just about booty calls or–what’s that old 70s phrase? The “zipless fuck”? Olivia is introduced, through Ethan, to the whole world of blogging, social media, and no longer relying upon the gatekeepers, i.e., critics, or those dinosaur editors of print publishing.

It’s sad that we don’t get to know these characters beyond their types. Sadder still is that the chemistry between Barrie and Grush is just not believable. Their relationship has be to set up fast so that the rest of the play can continue—one accepts their sexual interaction just to let the story unfold—but by far there isn’t enough of an instantaneous connection of passion between them to make their relationship credible. Grush is a dynamic actor who gives Ethan’s impetuousness and arrogance the right balance of self-effacing candor. Barrie, meanwhile, has the nuance to convey Olivia’s introverted low self-esteem down pat, but missing is Olivia’s sexual, as well as intellectual, allure. If Olivia is the kind of character who only reveals herself on the page, it’s no wonder that even after the first act she seems a kind of cipher.

So far all the you-know-the-internet/I-don’t-know-the-internet stuff is concerned, that’s really just fluff on top of a much older kind of story about the fickle nature of fame and success, about the envy that springs up between friends over who is making it in their careers and who isn’t, about who has more power in the relationship and who doesn’t. While this is the real dynamic of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship, it’s one in which the characters sleepwalk their way through, never pausing to observe themselves, what they are doing with each other or why.

Plus, Sex with Strangers sets up a strange dichotomy between what’s old and young but then fails to examine that dichotomy or whether it’s even valid.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Ethan falls in love with Olivia in part because of the excellence of her writing. So, the older writer is associated with excellence while Ethan’s blog is emblematic of flash-in-the-pan dreck that gets rewarded with fame and success. Missing from the play’s interrogation is any recollection of old school pulp novelists and young, excellent, intelligently written blogs—or intelligent blogs written by oldsters. Gone is any acknowledgement that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of writers old and young out there who may be every bit as talented, if not more, than the august Olivia—not all of them are going to get publishing contracts, even with a blog to promote their work.

The simplicity of Eason’s set-up is also her play’s downfall. No doubt, many in the audience will find her dialogue humorous and enjoyable, but whether this play will be remembered more than the usual date movie rom-com is anyone’s guess.

  
  
Rating ★★½
  
  

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REVIEW: Steppenwolf’s “American Buffalo”

Steppenwolf displays Mamet mastery

 AmericanBuffalo-3 

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

American Buffalo

by David Mamet
directed by Amy Morton
thru February 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

No one would ever accuse David Mamet of being a feminist. Yet Amy Morton’s direction of American Buffalo, now onstage at Steppenwolf, so skillfully teases out the masculine value systems that both inspire and defeat the play’s characters, one might easily conceive of it as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist tract. Assistant Director Jamie Abelson, in an after-performance discussion, revealed how Morton engaged in a bit of Meisner technique during rehearsal and threw out the infamous pauses and italicized words originally written into the script—so that the cast could find organic rhythms with the words alone.

Mamet’s language and its rhythms can be the bugbear of any production. But thankfully, with this well-balanced cast, each actor displays sure and deliberate internal mastery, never resorting to stereotypical staccato delivery that sometimes plagues Mamet performances. Instead, each interchange between actors is smoother, seemingly more effortless, neither delayed in pacing nor rushed in feeling. The action proceeds with quieter, subtler intensity—each incidental phrase or action naturally contributing to the play’s crescendo.

Organic is the quintessence of Morton’s direction but do not read from that any concept of a kinder, gentler American Buffalo. If anything, from design to performance, Steppenwolf’s production is a sterling model of good, old-fashioned hardcore Realism.

AmericanBuffalo-1Three down-and-out men, Don (Francis Guinan), Teach (Tracy Letts), and Bobby (Patrick Andrews), conspire in a basement junkshop to steal a recent customer’s coin collection. The customer had found a Buffalo nickel among the detritus of Don’s shop and bought it off of him. For perceiving its value, right out from under his nose, Don feels “taken” and diminished. Robbing the mysterious customer is only fair payback, in which both Bobby and Teach, each for their own reasons, want to play a pivotal role.

These are characters that could have just as easily stepped out of a 19th century novel as this 1970s play. The audience can neither escape from their seedy, depressed reality nor from the worlds they weave with the language they have at their disposal. Language–and the masculine values they have about loyalty, toughness, and cunning–proves to be both their doing and undoing. With the exception of a few moments, this American Buffalo delivers a taut, energetic, densely layered, and finely realized work.

The cast has earned all the accolades that can be heaped upon them, but it’s Tracy Letts’ performance as Teach that brings the fireworks. From the moment he first tromps down the junkshop’s steps in a wide, cumbersome stride, Letts immaculately controls his role, pulling humor naturally and fluently from it, reaching powerfully into the depths of Teach’s desperation. He can turn on a dime according to Teach’s shifting moods. From cock-sure complaint over the cheating that goes on at Don’s poker table to garrulous lecturing on how to pull the most professional heist, from jealousy to creeping paranoia to unleashed rage, Letts hits all the marks in one seamless pyrotechnic performance.

All of which would be for nothing if not flanked by the terse, fierce energy of Andrew’s Bobby or the quieter bulldog toughness of Guinan’s Don. I’m especially grateful for Andrew’s (and Morton’s) complete commitment to realism regarding Bobby. As the young, slow drug addict Don has taken under his wing, realistically grounding Bobby’s character, without pity or sentimentality, lends a sharper, more authentic edge to the cruel world inhabited by these characters. There is something especially refreshing about Realism in an era of “truthiness” and I appreciate the opportunity to see it done full-bore and without compromise.

Compared to other productions, Francis Guinan’s interpretation of Donny may be the biggest surprise. His Don would rather talk softly and carry a big stick—or talk softly and carry a big pig slaughtering thingy. But for all the discussion of Don being the play’s Alpha Male on Steppenwolf’s website, Guinan’s performance looks far more like an older alpha dog facing the precariousness of his dominant status. While never openly contested, Don’s rule, such as it is, seems more like the sun setting in the west.

Don is clearly contending with the encroaching limits of age, of being surrounded by people one can never completely trust, of being attached to souls as flawed and incomplete as Teach and Bobby. It’s vulnerability Don dare not show or confess to; it’s vulnerability that blossoms like a neglected flower in the final exchange between Don and Bobby. Certainly Guinan’s performance is not perfect—his opening moments at the top of the first and second acts feel somewhat stiff and the classic Mamet fight scene exposes some anticipation on his part. But the last exchange of tenderness between aging crook and young junky is the play’s crowning glory. Guinan makes it shine beautifully and mercifully through the play’s momentary gap in its dark atmosphere.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

 

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