Chicago Theatre Review
Poor Little Rich Boys
Posh – Steep Theatre
Using one’s status and wealth as an excuse for bad behavior isn’t exactly new but it seems to be rearing its ugly more and more these days, as reported in the news. We’re continually being assaulted by and subjected to the uncensored rantings of certain billionaire presidential candidates who believe that a man with enough money can say and do anything he pleases. Another recent incident reported a wealthy young Texas teenager who pleaded “affluenza” as his defense for a drunk-driving fatality. He testified that he’d been so insulated from what was right and wrong by his affluent, overly-protective parents that he was really innocent of doing any wrong. This is just another example of a person who believes that his money can buy anything.
Laura Wade’s 2010 work, which she’s both revised for this new stage version and adapted for the silver screen, is a very difficult play to watch. It’s so painfully abrasive, realistic and relevant because it speaks to our insatiable obsession with the rich and famous and the upper classes. A horribly inflamed sense of entitlement prevails among her characters in this play. For these young Oxford students, sizing up a man based on his parentage and pocketbook supersedes judging a person by his morals and actions.
Guy, a young Oxford University student, meets with his stuffy godfather, Jeremy, for some advice. Jeremy was once a Riot Club member and now he’s a moneyed Member of Parliament. Guy wants to impress his fellow club members by planning something unusual for their upcoming annual culinary event.
Driven by an exciting, overlaid sound design by Matthew Chapman, the scene cleverly turns into the private dining room of the country pub, where a group of ten affluent young men soon assemble to hold their annual end-of-term dinner. Chris and his teenage daughter Rachel will be serving the boys, and James, the outgoing club president, assures them both that, as his last official duty, he’ll be keeping the evening under control. However, nothing could be further from the horror that lies ahead.
The planned roasted ten-bird entree disappoints, there’ve been no recreational drugs made available, the wine is substandard, the champagne is just okay and the prostitute Harry hired to provide oral sex from under the dining table to all ten of the boys is a bust. These self-entitled, poor little rich boys become increasingly drunk and rowdy and begin bullying each other. Soon they’re ranting and raving about how lazy and demanding the lower classes have become. Eventually they take out their anger and frustration on Chris and Rachel. One of the boys brutally forces Rachel to kiss him and then tries to bully her into having sex with the entire group. After she runs out the boys become furious and demolish the entire dining room. When Chris returns to find out what happened to his daughter, the boys set upon him and beat the man nearly to death. It’s then that the play turns particularly dark and frightening.
Jonathan Berry has directed this disturbing and often violent drama about the privileged few in a very natural manner. With such an intimate setting (designed by Ashley Ann Woods and nicely-lit by Pete Dully) the closeness of the Steep Theatre uncomfortably forces the audience to feel like part of these proceedings. There’s much overlapping of dialogue, as happens in real life, but Berry’s made sure that what’s important and needs to be heard is clear and audible. The ten young men, all (eventually) dressed in white tie and tails, makes the guys appear identical; but after a series of conversations the audience is able to sort out each individual character.
The entire cast is very strong, even at one particular performance with two capable understudies filling in for a couple of ailing actors. This speaks well of Jonathan Berry’s attention to detail, as well as to the talent of these two young actors. As Alistair, the outspoken young club member who reluctantly accepts the blame for his club’s savage, destructive behavior, Michael Holding is commanding. Whether wielding a sword or brandishing criticism of everyone else in the room, Mr. Holding is hard-nosed and tenacious. Christopher Borek’s bewigged Toby often brings some much-welcome humor to the play, especially when drink has overtaken his judgment. Ryan Hallahan makes his portrayal of Dimitri, the target of everyone’s jokes about being of Greek descent, strong and somewhat sympathetic. It’s telling, however, how Dimitri’s willing to buy his way into everyone’s good graces by opening his wallet as each catastrophe occurs.
Michael Kurowski is terrific as Ed, a young, new club member who manages to always say and do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Japhet Balaban, so impressive in “Never the Sinner” at Victory Gardens, creates a subtly disapproving James, the outgoing president who’s been rethinking the arrogance and bad behavior found among his fellow club members. Bryce Gangel is a sweetly innocent, sympathetic Rachel, while both David Raymond and Charlotte Thomas ably rise to the occasion understudying the roles of Harry and call girl, Charlie.
This play is a hard pill to swallow. Seated only inches from the action it’s difficult to like any of these boys. But that’s the very intention of Laura Wade’s scathing, cautionary drama: to illustrate how those private clubs and secret societies among the affluent are more than simply a bunch of snobs. They’re populated by society’s most callous, self-entitled spoiled brats. These poor little rich boys believe they’re above the law and the demands of society, answerable only to themselves and, perhaps, a few others of their class. We continually see examples of this everyday in the news. It’s maddening, frustrating, and yet hordes of people stupidly fawn over these individuals. These are the boys who claim affluenza as their excuse for saying hurtful things and committing cruel and malicious deeds. Hopefully we won’t find our next elected leader a member of the Riot Club.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 21-February 27 by Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.steeptheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com