REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: A Guide For The Perplexed (Victory Gardens)

Brilliant acting heightens uneven script

 

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Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
A Guide for the Perplexed
       
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by
Sandy Shinner
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through August 15  |
Tickets: $20–50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Chicago sees a lot of very good acting. Yet every once in a while an actor really socks you in the eyes with the difference between good and great. That’s Kevin Anderson in a Joel Drake Johnson’s quirky dark comedy, A Guide for the Perplexed, now in world premiere at Victory Gardens.

Weiler and Anderson, V Every movement, every line of Anderson’s body adds meaning to his brilliantly nuanced performance. Together with Francis Guinan, another highly talented Steppenwolf ensemble member, he makes such mundane acts as making a bed or feeding fish hilarious.

Anderson plays Doug, a 50-something loser who’s just left a five-year prison stretch. Exhausted mentally and physically, with nowhere else to go, he’s reluctantly staying in the den at his sister Sheila’s house on the North Shore — much to the dismay of her nerdy, stressed-out husband, Phillip (Guinan).

Already coping with his own crises, including his collapsing marriage and a deteriorating relationship with his teenage son, the neurotic Phillip’s ill-equipped to deal with his passive-aggressive brother-in-law’s uneasy return to freedom. Sheila, played by Meg Thalken in a series of brief phone calls, is away on business. Phillip, out of work and demoralized as the result of a criminal accusation that may or may not be accurate, spends his time gardening, cooking, reading romance novels and quarreling with his bright, but troubled, gay son Andrew (Bubba Weiler).

Andrew vents to his uncle, who makes caring, though clumsy efforts to help. In a sensitive performance, Bubba Weiler exudes a sometimes over-the-top teen angst.

The title of this dysfunctional-family story is taken from the esoteric text by medieval Jewish philospher Moses Maimonides aka Rambam. Andrew, a Hebrew scholar, tells his uncle that Maimonides offers a rational guide to the "problems of living." But when Doug presses for examples of what the great thinker had to say about their own specific troubles, Andrew cannot answer.

 

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The final, bizarre addition to the cast of characters is Betty, a prosperous woman from Cincinnati, one of Doug’s many prison pen pals. To his consternation, she’s driven all night, arriving at 6 a.m., to shower him with gifts and confess that she’s fallen in love with him through their mail correspondence. Cynthia Baker’s Southern-belle portrayal seems overly cheery and restrained, not nearly lovesick enough.

The action rotates indoors and out on a neat revolving set by Jeffrey Bauer that nicely evokes upper-middle-class suburbia, but its measured revolutions unnecessarily slow the pace. Meanwhile, Johnson’s script spins dizzyingly back and forth between absurd humor and bleak emotional outbursts.

Often, it works, such as in a highly evocative monologue in the second act where Guinan brilliantly describes the pleasures of grocery shopping as relief from depression. But such comic delicacy clashes with the heavy melancholia of the serious moments, and the abrupt, unsettled conclusion leaves viewers without catharsis.

In the hands of less-skilled actors, this play might not be worthwhile. This cast, however, puts A Guide for the Perplexed on the recommended list.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Note: Suitable for ages 14 and up.

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