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: ‘Love Person” at Victory Gardens

 

Using the power of multi-platform story-telling, Love Person explores the emotional toll caused by discordant communications.

 

Love Person: "Well, I mean, it's not like I haven't seen people continuing before.  Continuing right out of my life.

 

 Love Person
by Aditi Brennan Kapil
Victory Gardens Theatre

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Love Person, by Aditi Brennan Kapil, now playing at Victory Gardens, explores the power of communication by creating a play that equally encompasses sign language, Sanskrit, English and modern forms of written communication within inter-tangled love triangles. The actor and actresses do not carry the plot alone due to the audience being able to visually read the texts and emails that are being sent between the characters. This creates a very realistic pause that exists within modern communication. The use of texting and email in this play also brings to question the power of communication between individuals even when you have no physical Love Person: "OK, you're pissed, I'm sorry."contact. The imperfections of translation are discussed in terms of human emotions so that we have a better understanding for the importance of these communication gaps.

The lead character, Free, is a moody, deaf, lesbian, played by Liz Tannebaum, who accidently forms an emotional bond with her sister’s crush while yearning for someone to honestly communicate with. Free lives with her lover and interpreter Maggie, played by Arlene Malinowski. Their relationship seems logical and could hold a real romance about it since they live together with their own separate language, but there is no warmth between them. Maggie’s outgoing attitude and her own conversations with friends leaves Free feeling isolated.

Ram is a Sanskrit professor studying the translation of Sanskrit poems. Ram is played by Rajesh Bose, who was the original Ram at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. His character is unsatisfied with the quality of Sanskrit poems once they are translated, he feels that the original language is far superior and loses some of its true meaning when spoken in English. This is an immediate connection for Free and Ram (even though they argue about it) since Free feels that sign language is inadequately translated into English.

Ram is reluctantly being set-up with Free’s sister. Free’s sister Vic is an English speaking, club-hopping, half-crazy Euro chick. Cheryl Graeff plays Vic‘s extreme emotional highs and lows with an entertaining personality. We are sprung back awake, and laughter is brought back into the theater when she enters the stage. She is not the intellectual or emotional connection that Ram is looking for. Even after Vic’s repeated attempts to attract Ram’s attention, he has no desire to have any sort of relationship with her until he received what he thought was an email from Vic. From that point he started talking through email, sharing his true personality and vulnerabilities with another person who actively shared in this modern form of bonding.

LovePerson: Free signing Maggie

There was a true intimate connection being made, without any physical interaction. The power of the communication was felt in the silence and anticipation while waiting for the next text to appear on screen. For those of us that consistently use texting and instant messaging as a form of communicating, this scenario, directed by Sandy Shinner is a realistic portrayal of the emotions involved while talking in 2009. The sometimes slow and boring moments of waiting for a response, also create an anxious sense of insecurity joined with excitement when you get a response. Liz and Rajesh are able to bring the power of this connection to life as they anticipate their next chance to speak to each other. That is also why the ending felt unfinished or unexplained. Was that connection really that intimate?

Love Person: texting-emailingWe are unable to see the depth of Ram’s character and there is never an emotional connection made with the audience as to why he chooses the path he does for his future. Free’s abrupt affection for her girlfriend Maggie at the end of the play doesn’t seem to fit her character. There is still a lot left unexplained as to why the bond formed through communication was so easy for her to walk away from if it meant so much to her personal happiness. Is she “settling” for Maggie, or do they find a deeper way to communicate through their love?

Love Person is unique in the way that it puts forth a multi-lingual performance. The three languages are used equally as lead languages. The audience is able to follow and fully absorb all forms of communication, which help deepen the impact of the performance. The script does a wonderful job at celebrating differences and poking fun and some humorous stereotypes. In particular, the scenes with Vic and Ram in Vic’s bedroom will make you chuckle.

Rating: «««

Venue: Victory Gardens Theater
When: Runs through June 14th
Tickets: call 773-871-3000

More information regarding Victory Gardens after the fold.

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune’s main theatre critic, Chris Jones, presents his top 10 plays of 2008:

 

1. A Trip to Bountiful  (Goodman Theatre)
by Horton Foote
Standouts: Harris Yulin (director), performance: Lois Smith
     
2. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director), actors: Jennifer Grace (as Emily), David Cromer (narrator)
 
     
3. Picnic  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Inge
Standouts: David Cromer (Director)
 
     
4. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); actors: Kate Fry, E.Faye Butler
 
     
5. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Standout: Kate Whoriskey (director)
 
     
6. Four Places  (Victory Gardens)
by Joel Drake Johnson
Standouts: Sandy Shinner (director)
 
     
7. Sweet Charity  (Drury Lane Oakbrook)
by Cy Coleman
Standouts: Jim Corti (director), Mitzi Hamilton (choreographer)
 
     
8. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
9. The Seafarer  (Steppenwolf Theatre)
by Conor McPherson
Standout: Francis Guinan (says Jones: probably the best male performance of the year)
 
     
10. Journey’s End (Griffin Theatre)
by Jonathan Berry
 

Honorable mentions: (alphabetically): America: All Better! (Second City), Don’t Dress for Dinner (British American Stage Company – at Royal George), Grey Gardens (Northlight Theatre), If All The World Were Paper (Chicago Children’s Theatre), Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night (Theo Ubique). Les Miserables (Marriott Theatre), Million Dollar Quartet (Deegee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights – at the Apollo Theater), A Taste of Honey (Shattered Globe Theatre), Tomorrow Morning (Hilary A. Williams LLC), The Voysey Inheritance (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company).

 

To see further discussion regarding each show, go to Chris Jones’ The Theater Loop blog posting.