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: 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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