Review: Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot

  
  

Cliff Chamberlain and Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Samuel J. and K.
   
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.Its themes—identity, fate, racial definition, nature vs. nurture, brotherly love—are. So why do the stakes in Samuel J. and K. feel so low? And its story, lacking in authenticity?

Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.

Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.

It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.

No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.

Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”

Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.

Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
  
 

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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: The Importance of Being Earnest (Remy Bumppo)

  
  

A Wilde night of wit

     
  

Darlow(Bracknell)Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre presents
   
The Importance of Being Earnest
   
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by
Shawn Douglass
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 9   |  tickets: $40-$50   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I have to admit, when I entered the Greenhouse for Monday’s opening night performance of Remy Bumppo’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for Oscar Wilde’s famous wit. I was coming off a redeye bus ride from a whirlwind Thanksgiving vacation, and on top of that, I could sense the first annoying tinglings of a cold. I don’t think I’m in the position to deem that the production, directed by Shawn Douglass, has any healing powers. However, after a few hours of chuckle-inducing satire, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theatre feeling a tad bubbly. The powers of Wilde somehow managed to persist even with Monday’s torrential downpour.

Hoerl(RevChasuble)Armour(Prism)Hurley(Jack)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)A case could be made that The Importance of Being Earnest is some sort of sardonic allegory; Wilde continues to subvert the Victorian norms he so often took aim at. The 1895 farce expounds on love, especially the role of lying in relationships. In the age of Facebook profiles and Match.com, white lies are par for the course. Apparently fibbing was just as common a hundred years ago.

The play revolves around two friends, Jack (Paul Hurley) and the hedonistic Algernon (Greg Matthew Anderson). Both invent brothers so that they can live freely as another persona without the fear of repercussion on their very real reputation. Unfortunately, Cupid strikes and trouble starts brewing. In the city, Jack names himself Earnest (ha) and falls for the charms of Gwendolen Fairfax (Linda Gillum), who claims she could never love someone that wasn’t named Earnest. Jack decides he should re-christen himself and leaves for his country home (where they think Jack’s imaginary brother is a libertine), but Algernon, always looking for some excitement, throws a wrench in his plan. He visits Jack’s country homestead also claiming to be Earnest, where he falls for his friend’s ward, Cecily (Kelsey Brennan). Obviously, there can be only one Earnest and time is running out as everyone converges on the estate. Of course, Wilde ties everything up by revealing ridiculous family secrets and logical roller coasters.

Anderson steals the show here, painting his Algernon with plenty of lounging, raised eyebrows, and a keen sense of Wilde’s timing. Another notable performance is David Darlow’s turn as the aphorism-rich Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother. The crossdressing, thankfully, does not come off as a gimmick; rather, I could easily believe Darlow was simply the best choice for the part. Hurley, Brennan, and Gillum also do decent jobs, albeit with a lack of fire.

     
Brennan(Cecily)Armour(Prism) Darlow(Bracknell)Brennan(Cecily)
Brennan(Cecily)Hurley(Jack)Anderson(Algernon) Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)Anderson(Algernon)

Overall, that’s Douglass’ biggest failing with this production. The stakes aren’t high enough, and Wilde’s delicious wit feels stodgy at times. When the writer’s infamous one-liners pop up in the script, too often the actors here glibly allow them to fall flat. Instead of an engaging scene, we watch the actors being clever. This throws the momentum off and it takes a long time for the cast to rediscover their balance. The first act, with the exception of Darlow, has a hard time finding the proper pacing. After that, though, the text and the actors are more in sync. Another unfortunate result of the cast’s woodenness is that a lot of the laughs are stifled into giggles. Don’t get me wrong, the humor here is delightful, it’s just not hilarious.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo still has a winner on its hands, and the cast oozes with charm. Wilde’s sharp satirical voice could be made more alive, but it definitely shines throughout. I would wager it’s impossible to leave in a bad mood, even when a late-fall deluge awaits you outside.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Gillum(Gwendolyn)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)Hurley(Jack)

Extra Credit:

  • Download the Being Earnest Study Guide (excellent!)
  • Don’t miss Between The Lines on December 11th
  • Consider attending the special New Year’s Eve performance on Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $75 and include post-show champagne and dessert with the cast!
     

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REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

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REVIEW: Night and Day (Remy Bumppo Theatre)

 

The Real Story Vanishing in the Dead of Night

 

Ruth (Linda Gillum) unleashes her rage over the death of Milne at Guthrie (Jeff Cummings) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight.

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
   
Night and Day
   
Written by Tom Stoppard 
Directed by
James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What to make of Remy Bumppo’s latest production Night and Day? On one hand, the whole production is a sexy, easy fit. James Bohnen’s spot-on cast slips casually and effortlessly into Tom Stoppard’s dialogue–just like an old-school lounge lizard would slip into a dry martini or a pair of silk pajamas. On the other hand, what with the United Nations releasing its recent report on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Wagner (Shawn Douglass) risks an upclose interview with dictator Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight. Congo, Stoppard’s cunning 1978 play still looks like a bunch of white people sittin’ ‘round, talkin’ while a country made up of darker-skinned people burns all around them. Set in the fictional African nation of Kambawe, the home of copper-king ex-pat Geoffrey Carson (David Darlow at our showing) is hardly the Court of Versailles. Nevertheless, on the brink of civil war, who has time to talk about fickle fame, sex, Scotch or the role of the media? These characters do.

Into this jaded milieu, Stoppard interjects the question: Does a free press matter? Define what you mean by a free press, etc. It’s this et cetera that Bohnen’s actors handle so well. Dick Wagner (Shawn Douglass), an Australian-born reporter for the Globe, solidly provides most of the sly, tough cynicism through his omnipresent worry over getting scooped. His colleague and comrade, photojournalist George Guthrie (Jeff Cummings), brings battle weariness and much-needed urgency and passion to a very talky show. Greg Matthew Anderson, playing freelance journalist Jacob Milne, achieves likeability and freshness with a character who sees no problem with blurring the line between serious and tabloid news. If Night and Day reveals anything, it’s Stoppard’s gift for prophecy.

These few, these happy few, descend on Carson’s home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ruth (Linda Gillum), because he possesses an untapped, unsevered line and a Telex machine to get the news out to the West. They are the true seekers of the story,  since the rest of Western press is still hanging out in the lobby of the local Sheraton. Carson also has connections with the rebel leader, Colonel Shimbu, whose Ruth (Linda Gillum) seduces young reporter Milne (Greg Matthew Anderson) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight. scheduled late-night meeting with the dictatorial President Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) leads to devastating consequences.

Politics aside, Stoppard situates blithe and cynical Ruth at the center of his satire, being the only character whose unspoken thoughts are transparent to the audience and being the one whose name–meaning mercy, sympathy and compassion–contrasts starkly with the ruthlessness all around her. Cherchez la femme, right? And what a femme she is. Gillum doesn’t hit a wrong note, negotiating dialogue directly to the audience and exchanges with her fellow actors like a master magician. Hers may be a performance that redefines the word glib. She excoriates the tabloid press for their paparazzi stalking of her divorce and marriage to Carson in one scene, only to fall for the young, idealistic defender of the tabloid press in another. I’m still pondering how she makes it look so easy, believable, and above all, sympathetic.

For the most part, Night and Day flows as smoothly single malt Scotch from a never-ending stream. Bohnen successfully builds tension with Guthrie’s suspicion of Carson, Milne and Guthrie’s departure to meet Colonel Shimbu, and the anticipated, nerve-racking visit from President Mageeba.

Perry’s entrance as Mageeba, certainly does not disappoint. He’s every bit as gracious, intelligent and threatening as a Western-educated, media-conscious despot should be. Regrettably, Mageeba’s ad hoc interview with Wagner drags and the play’s bit of stage violence comes off as unconvincing. It seems strange that Remy Bumppo should stumble here at such a critical moment. My hopeful assumption is that this was an off performance in an otherwise impeccable production.

Wagner (Shawn Douglass) gives Milne (Greg Matthew Anderson) a lesson in the ethics of journalism in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Does Stoppard ever resolve the question of the necessity of a free press? Tough to say—on the one hand, you don’t want the Mageeba’s of the world in charge of what’s fit to print; on the other, the media is a capitalist enterprise that trivializes critical news and foregrounds trivia, until all information turns into fodder before its gaping maw. Guthrie’s defense of a free press remains the most poetic in the play:

People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.

That is a plea appropriate to 1978, long before the 24-hour news cycle and the digital age. Now we are awash in information, both qualified and unqualified, and we can hardly now call all information light.

We few, we lucky few citizens of open, industrialized nations have, for a long time, used the media as much as a distraction from daily cares as for timely and relevant news. That’s a very human tendency. All the same, I found myself wanting to turn away from the diverting chatter of Stoppard’s principal characters. I grew weary of the same jaded arguments from people still living in a bubble of white and colonial privilege. I longed for Stoppard’s most silent character of the play, Francis (Michael Pogue), the Carson’s servant, to report his truth and have his perspective brought front and center.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit

Guthrie (Jeff Cummings) relays to Wagner (Shawn Douglass) and Carson (David Darlow), the tragic end of reporter Milne's life, in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336.   Photo by Johnny Knight.

Important Event on October 11th:

 

October 11: "Is the Truth Front Page News?" Journalist Panel

A free journalist panel hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele

Performance excerpts from Night and Day, highlighting the risks and responsibilities of foreign correspondents, will springboard a charged panel conversation, hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, on where readers now turn to get the truth.

 

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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
at
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: ★★
   
   

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Review: Steppenwolf’s 5th-Annual First Look Repertory of New Works

You Have Never Seen These Before

For the past five years, Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work has given Chicago audiences the unique opportunity to view works in progress for the very first time in the intimate setting of Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater. All three plays in this year’s First Look series are still in development, and are likely to undergo changes before being produced again.

09 First Look PlaywrightsFirst Look Playwrights: (left to right) Ensemble member Eric Simonson with Laura Jacqmin and Laura EasonPhoto by Elizabeth Fraiberg. 


Honest

Written and Directed by Eric Simonson
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Honest, written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, is the tragic story of best-selling memoirist Guy (Erik Hellman), a man whose past is much stranger than his novel’s fiction. When the factuality of his memoir is challenged by a reporter (Martin McClendon), a Mametian game of deception and blackmail unfolds, with both men’s futures hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Guy’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks chronicling the events that shaped the pathological liar seen at the start of the show.

The actors are faced with the unenviable task of bringing to life Simonson’s very dark world, and they due so magnificently. Hellman specifically must play the same character in four different time periods with four extremely different circumstances, and he manages to capture the fear and pain of a tormented soul with the charisma of a man who has been lying and getting away with it for years. Kelly O’Sullivan is heartbreaking as Guy’s cousin Casey, and when the two actors share the stage together the production truly shines.

Where the play falters a bit is in the opening and closing scenes between Guy and Martin, the reporter. Martin seems overly eager to share personal information with a complete stranger, and while it can be justified as forward movement for the plot, it simply did not ring true to the general conduct between an interviewer and his subject. Beyond that quibble, Honest is an engrossing examination of one man’s attempt to hide from his past, and the cruel truth that no matter where he goes, it always finds him.

Rating: «««

 



Sex with Strangers

Written by Laura Eason
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Thirty-something struggling writer Olivia’s (Amy J. Carle) world is turned upside down when she finds herself romantically involved with self-proclaimed asshole blogger Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush) in Sex With Strangers, the standout production of this year’s First Look series. Laura Eason’s script seamlessly balances romantic comedy with conflict as Olivia and Ethan’s honeymoon affair begins to feel the pressure of his very public sexual past, and director Jessica Thebus, along with an extremely gifted cast and creative team, has created a production that could easily be transferred to any theater as is.

From the first kiss to the last betrayal, Carle and Grush have the kind of chemistry that makes stage magic. Carle has proven herself an actress of immense depth and talent in the past, but her portrayal of Olivia is one of the most fully realized characters to grace the Chicago stage this season. Her relationship to Ethan is completely believable, in large part due to her male costar’s wonderfully charming characterization.

The two actors handle the rapid-fire banter of Laura Eason’s script with ease, further cementing the realism of the play, and it is real. Sex With Strangers is one of the most honest portraits of love in a world where privacy barely exists and sex is just another bodily function, and it is a must see for Chicago audiences.

Rating: ««««

 



Ski Dubai

Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Lisa Portes
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Rachel (Hillary Clemons) is an Environmental Friendliness Consultant relocated to Dubai with the daunting task of helping her company’s man-made island achieve "green" certification in Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin. Still reeling from a construction accident that left her New York City apartment on the sidewalk 15 stories below, Rachel must juggle living with randy roommate/colleague Perrin (Cliff Chamberlain), his insane wife Amanda (Sadieh Rifai), and a slew of other quirky characters while trying to establish a home for herself in a foreign world.

Clemons does an admirable job balancing Rachel’s naïveté with her growing apathy for not only the project to which she was assigned, but the modern ideology of "new is better than authentic," but the trauma of losing her New York home never seems as bad as she makes it out to be. The supporting actors seem to have been directed to take their characters so over the top that they lose dimension, and the actors get lost in showing the audience how wild they are without finding the motivation behind the action. Rifai stands out as Amanda, infusing her character with genuine anger at a world that never stops letting her down, and Jennifer Coombs is absolutely hilarious as the tactless Doctor that hates Dubai and everyone in it.

Jacqmin’s script struggles to find a balance between cartoonish hijinx and political commentary, and the end result is two-dimensional characters that never seem to have a voice of their own. Of the three plays, Ski Dubai is the one that could use the most retooling before being produced again, but when it is funny, like when Coombs traverses the space wearing invisible skis, it is hilarious.

Rating: ««

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