at Bailiwick Arts Center
Famous Door Theatre Company
By Adam Langer
As the family unit of wife, husband, two kids, and a dog has lost ground, American playwrights have had to look elsewhere for their subjects. As divorce skyrocketed and even Albee-esque husband-wife sniping was fast becoming outdated, theater looked to households that had been split apart, where latchkey kids grew up suckling the tube.
The rock ‘n’ roll, no-holds-barred naturalistic theater that was so popular in the late 70s and early 80s seems to have been a direct outgrowth of the increasing obsolescence of the nuclear family. The children in these plays, most notably those by Sam Shepard, are overgrown savages, exhibiting the base instincts that family life once kept in check. The characters pledge allegiance not to their biological parents but to brand names and television shows. Eccentric surrogate families sprouted up, such as the peculiar bloodlike relationship among small-time thieves at the heart of David Mamet’s American Buffalo.
In this style of theater–which was honed to shit-kicking perfection at Steppenwolf–every set was a dump, every script was littered with chest-thumping invective, and every prop and character usually wound up getting the hell beaten out of it, him, or her. That this sort of drama has all but lost its appeal–even at Steppenwolf, where Buried Child seemed oddly dated–probably results from the fact it was never so much a true, tangible reality as a substitute for or reaction against an outmoded reality. The wrestling, bellowing, toaster-flinging animals of these dramas were harbingers of the disappearance of the traditional American family–that reliable foundation for every playwright from Thornton Wilder to Arthur Miller. These days the only writers who successfully confront the nuclear family (August Wilson, Richard Greenberg, even, Lord help us, Neil Simon) are those who write about bygone eras when family drama was still vital, or those satirists like Constance Congdon who just lampoon the whole idea.
Though Lyle Kessler’s Orphans (catapulted to prominence by Steppenwolf) is barely 15 years old, it already feels dated. The play’s tension and immediacy may keep one glued to one’s seat, but its themes and ideas are unfortunately predictable now, even if they weren’t when it first appeared. Though I missed the Steppenwolf production and the film that sprang out of the play, little of Kessler’s drama–now at Bailiwick under the auspices of the CT20 Ensemble–feels the slightest bit surprising. A blend of True West and American Buffalo with a dash of rock ‘n’ roll Steinbeck tossed in for good measure, Orphans is a familiar tale of two very different brothers. Treat is seemingly tough and street-smart but underneath is weak and needy, while Phillip is terrified and seemingly dim-witted but underneath is strong and smart. Their roles change when they kidnap Harold, who becomes their surrogate father and takes control of their dead-end lives.
Kessler’s hostage thriller turned family drama is consistently involving and well wrought but too facile for its own good. The play’s naturalism and savagery often feel forced. Harold’s development from hapless victim to exacting but compassionate patriarch, Treat’s fall from unschooled hood to hungry-for-approval simp, and Phillip’s switch of allegiance from one man to the other are too well plotted, too graceful, too perfect to be credible. One is always aware of the artifice inherent in Kessler’s craft.
None of this detracts, however, from the riveting, precisely engineered production Steve Scott has directed for CT20. The performances are letter-perfect, from Ted Koch’s vulnerable but menacing Treat to Kevin Theis’s frenetic, blithering Phillip to Roderick Peeples’s fatuously grandiose Harold. Their sense of interplay and timing could not be better. Yet despite these estimable performances, all the wrestling, TV watching, gun wagging, Hellman’s mayonnaise licking, and soup slurping feel far older than the play’s 15 years. And strangely, what one feels watching is not exhilaration but nostalgia.
The same might be said of Chicagoan Peter M. Handler’s contemporary hostage drama Kingerera Great, now receiving its world premiere as part of the Rhinoceros Theater Festival. Handler takes the studied barbarism of dramas like Kessler’s to its next logical, nihilistic step in this disturbing comic story. Positing a society parallel to ours in which most relationships and modes of interaction feel obsolete, the playwright depicts a miserable, fantasy-obsessed wretch who takes a pathetic homeless man hostage for an afternoon of game playing. The irrepressibly jolly but hatefully manipulative Troy and his mostly silent partner (named only “Person”) appear to be the last remnants of a fragmented world: alienated, powerless, they have only each other to assuage their loneliness.
Despite its jokey exterior, this is grim stuff (imagine Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon on Prozac). Here the characters are victims no longer of broken families but of a broken society, where all interactions seem hopeless and random. In this thought-provoking if somewhat single-minded hour-long work, a skilled and intelligent playwright inspires us to consider his critiques of our society’s need for victims, our alienation, and the apparent pointlessness of theater. The fact that Handler can keep our attention while Troy yammers on in futile, self-denying glee is a tribute in itself to his gifts with language and pacing, as well as to Tim Decker’s energetic performance in a role that seems to have been designed solely to irritate.
The major flaw of this “absurdist hostage drama” is that its savage and nihilistic underpinnings feel mannered and its twisting conclusion predictable, just as they do in Kessler’s not-so-absurd hostage drama. There are graver flaws, to be sure, in the world of theater, and any plays as well performed and competently written as these are certainly worth a look. But with dramatists so downcast about the future of society, it would be nice to find some plays that offer solutions instead of putting on glib countercultural airs. After all, nihilism that rings false begins to sound suspiciously like narcissism.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Orphans photo by Jenifer Girard/ Kingerera Great photo by Mary Beth Sova.