Chicago Theatre Review
Chekhov for the Cellphone Set
At the Table – Broken Nose Theatre
“The terms of a conversation are controlled by who’s invited to the table.” So warns Chris, a sharp, attractive newcomer to this group of affluent, mostly caucasian, 30-something friends. They are spending a quiet, relaxing weekend of conversation, as they have every summer, at Nate’s cottage in the mountains. Chris is just getting to know these people and form opinions about the four longtime friends, but she’s not above introducing a controversial after-dinner topic of her own. The meal’s been eaten, dirty plates still litter the table, and the booze is freely flowing. Now, as in a Chekhov play for the cellphone set, the vigorous debates begin.
The host has made only two stipulations for this retreat: no topic is off limits, and no one is allowed to check his texts, tweets or email on his cell phone, iPad or other electronic devices. In fact, these distractions are collected and placed in a wicker basket and stored out of reach until the end of the weekend.
Along with Nate, the group’s congenial, laid-back owner of the house, and a divorced, single parent, there’s Elliot, a likable, lonely young man who’s possibly looking for a gay relationship; Stuart, an opinionated, somewhat quarrelsome young fellow who enjoys introducing controversial subjects simply to get a rise out of his friends; and Lauren, Stuart’s current girlfriend, a smart, sensitive young African American woman, who’s become used to having her views ignored, overlooked or simply drowned out by the boys’ loud opinions. Lauren has invited her friend Nicholas to join them at Nate’s mountain retreat, thinking that he and Elliot might hit it off. However, those plans go horribly awry. In the second act, Nate and Chris have now become a couple, Elliot brings along his new Jewish boyfriend, Leif, Stuart is currently dating Sophie, a bright, pretty young Asian American Millennial and Lauren, while still included in the circle of friends, is now single.
Stuart’s proposed topic of conversation, at the very top of the play, revolves around his theory about abortion. He raises the subject, predicting that scientists may eventually prove that a fetus is a human being, almost from conception. He argues about the right of a woman to make choices concerning her own body. Somehow he equates these two ideas with slavery, sparking new controversy and invoking sound arguments by both Lauren and Nicolas. Chris, who has very strong ideas about women’s rights, joins in the discussion, warning Stuart that unless a person has a vested, personal stake in a topic, such as this one, he’s not eligible to join the debate. Thus the title of the play not only describes the setting for much of it, but provides the premise that one must actually be part of a subject in order to be allowed to be allowed at the table to voice an opinion in discussing the issue.
Written by New York based playwright and director Michael Perlman, and originally performed Off Off Broadway two years ago, the script was recently reworked. The play takes place over two summers, the second act now following the controversial election of the current Presidential Administration. Instead of the happy ending originally afforded this often humorous drama, which had been created during the more optimistic and hopeful Obama years, the play now has a dramatic, pessimistic, even unsettled conclusion. Perlman’s objective is to reflect the doleful changes in our country’s present political policies. Primarily seen through Lauren’s eyes, this young woman goes through a profound catharsis and is forced to confront issues and pain she hadn’t experienced or felt in the original incarnation of the script.
When this daring, exciting, conversational play was first performed last year in Chicago by this new theatre company, it was rewarded with four Jeff Awards, including Best Play, Best Ensemble, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. It had previously been presented in a venue half the size of this current space. By remounting this production in a larger theatre, more theatergoers will have the opportunity to enjoy this stirring play. Broken Nose’s goal is to present stories that engage the audience’s empathy, amplify the underrepresented voice and spark conversation. This new production of Perlman’s play certainly lives up to this mission. In addition, the company believes that theatre should be for everyone, regardless of identity, background or financial situation. Thus, Broken Nose Theatre allows each patron the opportunity to name his own ticket price, based on what he can afford. This is, indeed, theatre for all.
Like every member of the original cast, Spenser Davis returns to once again direct this remounted production with focus and flair. He’s staged the play in three-quarter-round, allowing the audience to experience these characters up-close and personal. While most of the play takes place at or around the dining room table, a modest living room flanks the upstage portion of the set, providing an additional playing space. The modest production is well-lit by William Allen and realistically costumed by Taylor Horst.
The ensemble is excellent, conveying a feeling of naturalism, particularly in the characters and their penchant for talking over one another. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to focus, but Davis helps direct our attention to the appropriate conversation with his staging.
Echaka Agba is magnificent as Lauren, who, in this rewrite, emerges as the play’s protagonist. She’s articulate and wise, although frustrated about being constantly interrupted by the men, whenever she tries to make a point, and not being completely understood by everyone in the room. Ms. Agba tries to hide Lauren’s annoyance, indignation and hurt, but in the final scene, tears streaming down her face, this actress makes her anguish truly felt.
As Stuart, Evan Linder is brash and arrogant, the sort of young man who never recognizes that his friends might have their own opinions, let alone offering them a chance to express themselves. Adam Soule’s Nate is amiable and generous most of the time, but he’s primarily out for himself. In this case it’s to bed Chris, the newcomer to the group. In acquiescing to her viewpoint, Nate knows he’ll achieve his goal. Chris is played with skill and honesty by Elisa Spoerlein. She’s not only articulate and passionate in her opinions, but she realistically displays every thought and feeling on her expressive face.
]As Elliot, David Weiss is perfection. He complains, whines, sulks and his somnolent early morning journeys from the bedroom to the kitchen in search of coffee are very realistic. But what resounds the loudest is this confused young man’s desperation for companionship. Elliot experiences both unexpected rejection from Johnard Washington’s proud, indignant Nicholas, and betrayal by over-affectionate Polyanna, Leif. As played by Benjamin Brownson, Leif is stifling, annoyingly optimistic and one of those grinning idealists who believe everyone’s troubles can be lightened by a group hug. And as Sophie, Stuart’s new romantic interest, Jennifer Cheung creates a poised, confident, thoroughly levelheaded young woman who may be the only character in this play who’s in control of her life.
Bravo to this electrifying and inspiring young theatre company, both for their generous mission and for offering yet another opportunity for Chicago audiences to experience this terrific, Jeff Awarded piece of theatre. Spenser Davis’ dynamic, sensitively guided production fully brings to life, once again, the powerful impact of Michael Perlman’s script. This playwright’s modern take on the comedies of Anton Chekhov, or perhaps as a twenty-first century reboot of “The Big Chill,” is smart and engaging. Here, for a limited time, is one more opportunity to enjoy true Chicago style ensemble acting at its best. Do not miss this wonderful production!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 29-July 28 by Broken Nose Theatre in the Upstairs Main Stage at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are all “Pay-what-you-can,” available at the Den box office or by going to www.brokennosetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.