From Manuscript to Mainstage: A Novice Playwright Scores at Steppenwolf

Just when it seemed the local theater scene would never unearth another impressive new playwright, along comes Alexandra Gersten’s My Thing of Love on the Steppenwolf Theatre’s mainstage. It’s been too long since a play nurtured in the Windy City snapped and crackled with the kind of electric charge found in this actress-turned-playwright’s first full-length work, which is about a suburban Chicago couple in danger of breaking up after the wife discovers her husband is having an affair. Now Steppenwolf, which controls the rights to the play, must decide what it wants to do with the potentially lucrative piece and with Gersten, whose voice combines flaky comedy in the style of Beth Henley with the brutal frontal-assault tactics of David Mamet or Sam Shepard.

How did Steppenwolf and Gersten connect? Two years ago, when Gersten and Steppenwolf ensemble member Terry Kinney were performing together in New York, Gersten showed him the first scene of a play she had begun. Excited by what he saw, Kinney told her to keep writing and to submit the finished piece to Steppenwolf’s new play development project. Gersten took his advice and without any special assistance cortributed My Thing of Love to a pile of some 400 new scripts from which the theater might choose one or two to develop and produce.

As luck, taste, and talent would have it, Gersten’s play rose to the top of the heap, and last December the playwright and several Steppenwolf ensemble members, including Laurie Metcalf, convened in a rehearsal room to read it before a few invited guests. From Gersten’s perspective, the initial reading didnt go well. “It read flat,” she says, “and I was feeling like I might never write anything again.” But others felt differently, including Steppenwolf’s immediate past board president Bruce Sagan. He approached Gersten after the reading and offered strong encouragement. “He told me he believed this was a Steppenwolf mainstage show,” says Gersten. Artistic director Randall Arney was another fan of the work, saying, “It was clear she had something there.”

The decision to put the play in the theater’s final slot of the 1991-92 season was made shortly thereafter, when Metcalf said she would be available this summer to play the role of Elly, the frumpy wife with a wicked sense of humor who is driven to the brink of insanity by her husband’s infidelity.

During rehearsals the script underwent considerable polishing, and one supporting character was substantially rewritten to become a school guidance counselor instead of a teacher. Under Kinney’s direction, the show opened July 12 to notices that hailed the. play’s unmistakable theatricality.

Now Steppenwolf is trying to map out the play’s future life. A move to off-Broadway is one option Arney has already mentioned for next spring or summer. But that may depend in part on whether Metcalf, who delivers a knockout performance in My Thing of Love, wants to come back to the play after filming another season of Roseanne. Arney notes, “We have to determine whether she wants to spend her next hiatus from television doing the same piece.” Meanwhile, Gersten has gone back home to New York to continue working on a second full-length play about a woman who goes to court to testify against her husband, who works for the CIA.

Space for Rent: Cultural Center Makes Some Money

The white-elephantine Cultural Center may yet turn into a gold mine for the city. With the Museum of Broadcast Communications already moved into the structure, cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg is about to welcome her newest tenant: Cameron Mackintosh, producer of megahits Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, who will rent a large chunk of space as a rehearsal hall for his first national touring company of Miss Saigon, slated to debut at the Auditorium Theatre on October 17. Mackintosh Will pay the city $40,000 to use the space for six weeks beginning August 10; he’ll install a dance floor and make other alterations to accommodate his cast’s needs, and Weisberg has told her staff to do whatever it takes to make the company comfortable during their stay. Weisberg says the rental fee will help finance future Cultural Center programming.

Six Degrees in the Heat: Is Them Life After Mario?

Was it Marlo Thomas or the play itself that made the Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals production of Six Degrees of Separation a hit in its first weeks at the Briar Street Theatre? The evidence suggests it was Thomas rather than John Guare’s play. When Thomas left the cast on June 28, the weekly box-office grosses took a nosedive, plummeting from near $90,000 to a measly $25,000 for the holiday week preceding the Fourth of July. Since the holiday, grosses have risen to around $39,000 last week, but they’re still nowhere near the close-to-capacity business the show did for the nine weeks Thomas was present. Producer Leavitt says the holiday was a factor in the box-office drop, but he concedes that a lot of customers probably wanted to see Thomas and that fans of Guare’s play also rushed out to see it in the first few weeks. Leavitt said the show will continue if the weekly grosses hover in the $40,000 to $45,000 range. With TV star Veronica Hamel having replaced Thomas, the show is slated to run through September 13, but just ahead is the long hot month of August, traditionally a slow period for theatergoing.

Eat This Gimmick: Kevin Brown’s Big Bowl

Kevin Brown, a managing partner of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has hit on a concept that could prove a winner with the growing legions of restaurant patrons who want to eat healthfully, quickly, and inexpensively. Called the Big Bowl, Brown’s 40-seat eatery opened a month ago in an underutilized nook of the Eccentric at 159 1/2 W. Erie. Most of the food is prepared in a tiny, 150-square-foot open kitchen built into the space. The small menu features dishes served in large white bowls; most consist of a grain, a meat, and vegetables, and many are steamed in a special cooker that traps the food’s natural juices. Example: Three Chix on Stix, chicken skewers brushed with barbecue sauce and served with steamed veggies over a noodle cake. Entrees range from $4.95 to $8.95. If the Big Bowl catches on, Brown wants to open other outlets around town.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Denise Winters.