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A metropolis during the Great Depression, a beachfront home in California, and a chic upper class apartment in New York City are the settings for the three plays developed in this year’s Steppenwolf First Looks series. United in their focus on desire and pain, the frugally titled “Man in Love,” “Want,” and “Oblivion” feature memorable characters that are bold, engaging, and fundamentally unhappy. They hunt, crave, and search for meaning and joy, turning to others, within, and above. If and how they find it is addressed differently by each playwright, but together they reavel multiple quests for the same goal of sincere meaning in an insincere time.
A Killer Accomplishment by “Man in Love”
Set in a segregated metropolis during the Great Depression, “Man in Love” twists between six characters pursing their desires during a time of social and economic turmoil. A man released from prison searches for work, another pines for the attention of a beautiful, young student, and another man – a book stacker at the University of Chicago library – hunts for something much darker: squares of Black, female flesh.
Paul Pare, Jr., a soft-spoken Black serial killer, is the creation of Christina Anderson, a playwright schooled by Brown and the Yale School of Drama. Her goal for the play was to pen a period piece that follows these murders and tracks the society’s reactions to the deaths of Black women. Over the course of the play, Paul Pare, frighteningly played by Namir Smallwood, grows his numbers from 4 to 5 to 6, as squares of flesh appear in a stack on his wall. We’re offered a glimpse into the psyche of the disturbed, violent man during killer monologues, delivered under a piercing light and over a tense soundtrack.
Despite the importance of the murders in the play, it is not a television crime drama, but a more complicated exploration of desire and secrets in a time of raised tension. Perhaps the most fascinating character is Bernice – a woman who today might identify as transgendered – who throws parties for money and attention while only having a loose connection to the killer. Brilliantly embodied by Ryan Lanning, Bernice is a tall woman who seeks belonging even though she is not, as her friend remarks in a war of words, a “real woman.” In the post-show talkback, Artistic Director Martha Lavey remarked that everyone in the work is passing. Bernice passes as a woman, Paul Pare passes as an innocent man, and other characters pass as wealthy or as white. It is this shifting of identities – secret and public – which thematically connects the characters in a stronger way than plot can. In fact, the piece might be stronger if the killer never interacted with the other characters, letting their connections be solely those of setting and situation.
“Man in Love” tackles much – race, gender, class – and does so while remaining true to a collection of messy, complex individuals desperately searching for love in a flawed world. With historical accuracy and a gentle nuance, it is a bold new play that all the while feels somehow familiar. And that is a killer accomplishment.
“Want,” a Funny Social Critique, Needs More
David, a charismatic “tough love” therapist (although he’d never answer to the title and doesn’t have any sort of license) has assembled a group of former addicts in a beachfront California home. The five residents live communally, working to overcome their addictions to food, drugs, and/or sex and put an end to suffering. They seem happy, having left behind their former lives for this separated paradise, but their comfortable rhythm is disrupted when a wild, young woman arrives and affirms that desire never fully dies.
Zayd Dohrn, a playwright, screenwriter, and teacher, was inspired to write “Want” after watching close friends struggle with addiction and flip-flop in and out of rehab. He witnessed their searches for happiness, belonging, and acceptance, all the while growing cynical about our capitalistic, consumer culture. “Want” is his fast-paced critique of that culture, as he unravels the authority of the leader David, perfectly realized by Mark L. Montgomery. An especially strong cast of talented veterans make the work engaging from the initial scene – Audrey Francis, as a tightly-wound ex-wife who craves meaning, Kendra Thulin as a former addict who craves sweets, and Mick Weber as a man questioning his profession and sexuality while craving acceptance. Weber’s Henry, the former attorney whose savings bankroll the operation, ends up being the most dynamic, engaging character – changing from a humorous, jovial house-ex-husband into an angry, bitter man by play’s end. The cast’s chemistry and commitment is palpable, although newcomer Janelle Kroll as the home’s newest resident misses several comedic moments and doesn’t carry the show as strongly as another might.
With such a sharp-edged critique, one might expect Dohrn to offer a solution to our contemporary, continual unhappiness. But an open-ended ending – which was still undergoing drafts up to the performance – doesn’t offer an easy answer, but also doesn’t quite feel true to the play. There’s a stronger ending hiding just beneath the surface that could be teased out by a “tough love” session or two. In truth, there’s something fascinating about struggling find the right ending in a play titled “Want;” perhaps embracing that struggle – maybe through abandoning realism – might give the piece a more satisfying close.
The characters in “Want” are engaging and strong, even when their wills aren’t. Their struggle for happiness is one every human endures, making the play linger long after craving fades.
Rebelling with Religion in “Oblivion”
Upper class Jewish parents Pam and Dixon want nothign more than for their only daughter to mature into an upstanding moral citizen of the world, someone who thinks for herself and always questions authority. So when their high schooler Julie repeatedly lies about sneaking away to a weekend church retreat, their open minds begin to close and their feet begin to come down. This rebellious daughter isn’t turnint to drugs or sex for fulfillment, but something her parents find even scarier: God.
When raising a child, parents must choose which beliefs and values to pass on and how to go about that passing. The process is made even more difficult for humanist parents, who do not rely on religious institutions to instruct their children in morality. “How do I teach my child right and wrong?” “How do I punish them?” “Should I?” These questions take center stage in Carly Mensch’s newest play, “Oblivion,” when two parents must confront the fear that they have failed their daughter. Schooled at Julliard and working as a story editor forWeeds, Mensch creates a smart, humorous play which draws upon her own Jewish upbringing and disillusionment with religion and society. Mensch writes for her generation, which she describes as “over-educated yet spiritually malnourished 20-somethings who fear they’re overdosing on the excesses of entertainment and media yet have no idea what to do about it.” Fiona Robert’s even-keeled Julie captures this duality: an extreme intelligence, yet base embracing of silly pleasures, a longing for more, and a contentment with the everyday.
Caught in the web of lies is Bernard: a quirky, Asian, aspiring filmmaker who worships a god of his own: film critic, Pauline Kael. His devotion to Pauline mirrors his friend Julie’s search for meaning in a house of atheists. Under Matt Miller’s clear and clever staging, “Oblivion” chronicles Julie’s forays into the church, as she tries on praying, baptism, and forgiveness. These explorations leave her parents behind, straining their marriage and forcing them to question just how much they believe in one another.
In the beautiful final scene, as Bernard plays his black-and-white first film for the family, there’s a quiet hope that the family will be alright. Bernard apologizes that first films are never that great since the maker has to learn as he or she goes. Perhaps that’s how we all live our lives, learning as we go how to behave, how to treat others, and how to find meaning. It’s a messy exploration, but maybe we’ll perfect it the second time around.