He can act, he can write. And he has won big awards for both disciplines. For all we know, the man can also sing and dance and is readying his musical debut. Any way you look at it, Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Tracy Letts is a force on the American stage and screen.
And he’s got another new play comin’ at you. Soon.
Running March 30 – May 21, 2017, Letts’s Linda Vista hits the boards at Steppenwolf.
Looking for a destination theatre trip to put some spring in your step? This promises to be one worth traveling for.
In deciding to photographically render the grand old, Tequila-soaked Hummingbird Motel and its residents in exquisite, grungy detail on stage (right down to the broken coke machine and abandoned car), Lisa D’Amour’s huge new play at Steppenwolf gets drawn into recreating a simulacrum of the reality we think we know – as opposed to creating something new and uniquely theatrical that we feel. The scale of Scott Pask’s delectable set, which is really the star here and significantly upstages the play text, puts the focus on look over substance, and atmosphere over real drama. In a quest for supposed authenticity, what gets lost is an actual experience. Perhaps better suited to film, AIRLINE HIGHWAY is a humorous, winding examination of the Hummingbird’s world on the day of a New Orleans style send off funeral for den mother Miss Ruby, but does not offer much new. Also, the pitfalls and perils of retailing lifestyles of the poor and unknown (at significant cost) to America’s elite theatre audience are very much in evidence.
For an example of how tricky the business of portraying the American “underclass” on today’s mainstream stage can be, you need look no further than the program for Steppenwolf’s production of AIRLINE HIGHWAY by Lisa D’Amour.
On the cover, there’s a clean image of three characters from the show in all their ragged fabulousness. The only text is the name of the play and theatre. Beautiful.
And then you turn the page.
The inside spread features, on the left, an ad from @properties, a Chicago real estate firm, with a svelte older woman in a stylish leopard print dress: “You show your style in many ways, not the least of which is your home. You deserve a broker who gets that; a broker who gets you.” Want to know more? Contact the Luxury Portfolio International division.
On the right, it’s a message from MB Financial Bank, offering help with your wealth management and capital markets needs: “When you work hard there are wonderful rewards. For some it’s the sound of applause, and for others it’s the satisfaction of a business well run.” Somewhat incongruously, the photo there is of an ethnically diverse bouquet of young actors on stage – likely not the core target market for the bank’s services.
Turn the page again.
Now you’re staring down a gleaming white aristo male model in black tie who could have stepped right out of THE GREAT GATSBY. If you need such an outfit – or lifestyle – simply head on over to Paul Stuart on Lasalle.
Flip a few more pages, and it’s an advert for Christie’s: “From fine arts to fine estates”. Presumably you have a taste for both, yes?
You get the picture.
It’s not necessarily a problem. It’s the way things are. The American theatre needs money, and these are the companies (and patrons) that have it. But in such an institutional setting, in front of audience members who may have strolled the 1/4 mile to Steppenwolf from their Viennese villas on N. Burling in Chicago’s beautiful .001%-er Lincoln Park neighborhood, the idea that any engaging or provocative treatment of the colorful down and out of New Orleans could be staged is a bit of a fantasy – the stuff of theatre.
Not many figures loom as large over the American theatre landscape as Martha Lavey, longtime Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre.
But if you had to think of who might be able to fill her shoes at the helm of Chicago’s fierce and fabulous ensemble, Anna D. Shapiro would be a good choice.
And indeed, today Steppenwolf announced that Shapiro will be taking the reigns from Lavey in the fall of 2015.
Lavey has left an incalculable imprint on theatre in America. She’ll remain an ensemble member at Steppenwolf, but will be focused on directing a major campus expansion.
Steppenwolf is adding a new 400 seat theatre just south of their main space on North Halsted, which houses the existing 500 seat theatre. The new space will replace the temporary Upstairs Theatre, where the current Broadway run of THIS IS OUR YOUTH kicked off in July. In addition, north of the current main building, a whole additional new building is going in at 1700 North Halsted, which will house offices and the Lab at Steppenwolf (including a new black box lab theatre).
In a nutshell, when all is said and done, Steppenwolf will occupy a large chunk of a city block in Chicago’s leafy Lincoln Park. With the expanded capacity, the company is well positioned to solidify its stature as one of America’s most important theatres and generators of new work.
Incredibly, even though he has already won every award there is and been produced all over the world, Bruce Norris only continues to improve and hone his contemporary relevance. With THE QUALMS, a skillfully crafted, compact exploration of monogamy and its limitations as experienced inside an alternative polyamorous (aka partner swapping) community, this questing, ambitious artist delivers his best play since CLYBOURNE PARK and shows that there is seemingly no aspect of contemporary American life that does not interest him.
Audience members may be surprised to find that Norris’s heretofore customary abrasive tone is noticeably absent in THE QUALMS. In fact, his sympathetic treatment of many of the play’s characters and the sensitive exploration of some of hu(wo)manity’s deepest flaws (as well as most endearing assets) suggest a most unexpected discovery: Bruce Norris is happy.
CHICAGO – It’s any night of the week in a small southern (or is it western?) city. And as several middle class couples who could be anyone arrive for dinner at a gated beachside complex, the conversation turns – as it always does for ordinary Americans kicking back with friends – to the anachronistic human institution of monogamy, the abstract concept of sharing sexual partners, and the rather more specific proposition of turning your own spouse over to someone else for the next 20 minutes.
Or a full half hour if it involves a three way.
Wait. What? From the very first line of this sharp and sticky world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, you sense that, despite the realistic setting (kitchen sink and all) of a comfortable home, this is not going to be just any ordinary night at the theatre. But then this isn’t just any ordinary playwright at the helm. It’s bomb thrower Bruce Norris, who has made a career out of lobbing anti-complacency grenades deep into the box seats of the American class system and mercilessly picking apart the commonly held but often inadequately explored beliefs and assumptions that underpin some of contemporary society’s thorniest topics. He’s taken on race, money, and privilege. And now he trains his sights on marriage, fidelity, monogamy and sexual possessiveness.
In this fast-moving play, which at only 90 minutes with no intermission positively flies along, Norris is like a man with a torch walking briskly past a long line of cannons pointed at the audience, merrily lighting the fuses on all of them. He then disappears into the night, and after a short delay all hell breaks loose. A vast number of questions and issues are opened up, but very few are resolved. As you leave the theatre, the scope of the play keeps expanding. Which is what good theatre does.
As the play begins, married couple Chris and Kristy are discovered visiting with Gary and Teri in the latter’s home. We quickly figure out that Gary and Teri are hosting some sort of sex party for couples and that Chris and Kristy, for the first time, have decided to come and see what’s involved. The two couples met on vacation in Mexico a while back, at which time Gary mentioned “the lifestyle” and extended an invitation to learn more. The two newcomers, an attractive wholesome looking duo, have now decided to do just that, and they become the audience’s entry point into this strange new world (to all of the audience? some?) ahead. Much of the dramatic action involves these two finding out exactly what they have gotten themselves into, and then interrogating, resisting, arguing with, or submitting to the group’s activities.
Within the first few lines, Gary (a perfectly cast Keith Kupferer as a stout swinger in floral shirt with thinning hair and a penchant for electronic hookahs) immediately marks out where we’re headed: “Why do people get married? We’re not naturally monogamous, you know.” Chris (a hilariously uncomfortable and uptight Greg Stuhr) is the straight man whose sensibilities are going to be violated by just about everything all night long, all the while assuring us that he’s “not conservative.” Kristy (a fabulous Diane Davis, recently seen in the outstanding revival of THE MODEL APARTMENT by Donald Margulies at Primary Stages in New York) is a very attractive and eventually more interested explorer than her husband, though when we later find out which half of the outside couple wanted to come and why, we’ll be surprised. Teri (a sexy and affectionate Kate Arrington) makes it clear she is potentially interested in both Chris and Christy. Teri and Gary are not married.
No sooner do we grasp the setup than the rest of our marvelous cast of characters for the evening (dazzling actors all) begin to arrive at the house. Two other couples soon materialize (for a total of four), and we figure out that this gathering, which takes place in some unspecified coastal location, is one that people from all over the country attend, and its location moves around to different hosts every few months. Gary reminds everyone to “check the web site and pay your dues if you haven’t already”. In short, we have a society of swingers, and they have known each other for some time.
Next to arrive are Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), also not married. Deb is a large woman (you know Norris is going to do something with that). Ken is a flamboyant, buffed out guy, whose exact sexuality will puzzle straight man Chris (who thinks he is gay) to no end. And then Regine (Karen Aldridge), a French woman from Marseille, and Roger (David Pasquesi), a thin and prickly Gulf War vet arrive and our group is complete.
And so now with our full group of eight on hand, what happens next is…
Unfortunately, I really do not want to give away any more than I already have about the play’s trajectory. Suffice it to say that every social taboo against enjoying multiple sex partners is soon arrayed on the table and taken up by different members of the assembled group, to devastatingly funny but also provocative effect. By about an hour in, the evening’s planned schedule has been reduced to rubble, and some characters are threatened to the very core. And then there is some real ugliness.
But it is in the play’s final seven minutes that yet another trademark Norris coup de théâtre takes us to a whole different plane. No one can let a silent, heavy moment hang there like Norris. And then with a single line he converts all that built up emotion into anarchic, uncontrollable, revolutionary laughter. The kind that upends everything you thought you believed and knew. The kind that could even change your mind. We end the play with one of those moments that can only happen in the live theatre. And we could all do with a lot more of those.
An actor as well as a playwright, Norris knows how to create material for an ensemble like Steppenwolf to shine. And watching these eight phenomenal actors (expertly directed by Pam MacKinnon who, fresh from the extraordinary WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID by Sarah Treem at Manhattan Theatre Club, has now directed two of the most exciting new American plays of 2014 – both concerned with sex) command the stage (and each others’ bodies – oh behave) is truly inspiring.
In this gritty study of a day in the life of three struggling, over-privileged high school grads in New York City in 1982, Lonergan locates the ethos and moral woes of an era just about to hit the fan. With an overall solid cast, the highlight is newcomer Tavi Gevinson, who at 18 is closest in actual age to her character.
CHICAGO – Ah, the 1980’s. It was morning in America, and a golden haze of possibility hung low over the hinterlands as the Reagan era dawned. In Manhattan, which seemed to be coming apart at the seams, it was the last days of disco, and teenage offspring of the well-heeled occupied themselves with finding drugs, doing drugs, going to clubs, watching TV, and making the occasional run to Zabar’s for caloric sustenance.
Zabar’s at 80th and Broadway remains, but almost everything else depicted in Kenneth Lonergan’s grime-encrusted coming of age tale THIS IS OUR YOUTH has disappeared along with a chapter of New York’s history that now seems about as remote as the 1880’s. And yet these young characters are so recognizable, and their plights so engaging, that two hours with them still provides a probing and very funny night in the theatre.
Dennis (Kieran Culikn, 31) is an under-utilized drug dealer taking some time after high school to figure out his next move, which so far consists of little more than changing the channel while smoking pot. It’s the age of white lines, when kids at fancy New England prep schools boarded planes for South America with suitcases full of cash, returning with something special to get the party started. Dennis is a bit of a legend (in his own mind) and skilled at moving coke between supplier and customer, but he’s not that excited about what life has in store.
The plot gets going when newly homeless beta male Warren (Michael Cera, 26) interrupts Dennis’s afternoon of TV and arrives with a suitcase full of cash and childhood toys. Warren has just been evicted by a financially successful but angry father, and to get back at him Warren absconds with $15,000 (a lot of money in 1982) he found lying around. Dennis resents Warren’s intrusion but quickly begins plotting how the two could profitably deploy these resources and also have some fun – possibly, in a flight of imagination, by going to France. Dennis is the uber dog in the teenage rat pack, and Warren is eager for acceptance. But as we will find out, there are limits to what Warren will put up with.
And then there is Jessica (Tavi Gevinson, 18), the third and most interesting character, a fashion student who actually has some plans for life and is a friend of Dennis’s girlfriend. As the story goes on we learn that Jessica views herself as on the periphery of the scene, and she has had some bad experiences in the past with other boys in this upper crust world. Warren is interested in Jessica, though he has nary a clue what to do about it, and Dennis sets the two up after savaging Warren for his lack of success with girls. The latter part of act one when Warren and Jessica talk and dance in Dennis’s apartment provides the play’s most touching moment.
As the ringleader and chief verbal assailant, Dennis is mean and hyper smart. Aside from his age, which is pretty far removed from a high school kid, Culkin looks perfect for the role, even if he is at times a little too friendly. He smiles a lot and does not quite have the brutal edge that Dennis’s lines reveal. But with long hair spilling across his face, outfitted in the signature soiled polo shirt avec wrist bands, and full of hilarious raging monologues that self dramatize his poor little rich kid narrative, Culkin makes the most of this meaty, bitter genius role.
As Warren, Cera is good at looking and acting awkward, but his blank stares do not always adequately carry this character’s internal state and backstory. He could perhaps be a little more beaten down, a little more miserable. The domineering relationship between Dennis and Warren is somewhat hampered by the fact that Cera is quite the equal in size to Culkin, so without manifesting more of Warren’s psychological state, it’s not clear why he would put up with Dennis’s hectoring and not just slug him. Cera is also quite a bit beyond high school age, though his haircut, slouch, and insecurity help cover up some years.
Into this male drug and delusion-fueled battleground comes the show’s real revelation – Tavi Gevinson. New to the stage, Gevinson has a lot of talent and is very exciting to watch. She really becomes her character, and her own relative lack of experience gives Jessica an even more authentic feel. There’s a great dance sequence when Warren and Jessica start to unwind, and watching each of them work their moves – at separate ends of the apartment at first – is pure joy. Gevinson could go far. Many young actors essentially play themselves. Though she may be doing that here, it just so happens that she is perfect for Jessica, and the energy and presence Gevinson brings makes the show. She is sure to learn a lot in the imminent New York run.
At Steppenwolf, the show is configured in an open central runway with a ramp of seats on either side in the upstairs theatre. This setup gets the audience much closer to the actors than the upcoming Cort Theatre production will. This proximity is important. From a front row seat (where I was lucky enough to be), you can almost smell the decay of ringleader Dennis Ziegler’s minimally furnished apartment. With an old stereo and TV, and one of those skylights that look on the verge of collapse and were seemingly de rigueur in old New York apartments, the milieu perfectly mirrors the harsh, unwelcoming world the three young characters have found themselves thrust into. For New York, the staging will be totally different, and all three are going to need to amp up more.
If you recall the original cast of YOUTH (Missy Yager, Mark Ruffalo and Josh Hamilton), who have been immortalized on a must hear 2009 recording of the play by L.A. Theatre Works, you would be forgiven for thinking that no one could ever hope to do a better job. The truth is this is a different production, as it must be in a different era.