Time to Burn

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

The dual purpose behind Steppenwolf’s new show Time to Burn is laudable: to illuminate the lives of society’s dispossessed while showcasing the racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity of Chicago’s off- and off-off-Loop theater. For the world premiere of this postindustrial, politically correct reworking of Maksim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, New York director Tina Landau has brought together a mostly local cast ranging from veteran journeyman Mike Nussbaum and Steppenwolf ensemble member Mariann Mayberry to folks whose work will likely be unfamiliar to audiences who frequent only the upper echelon of local theaters–people who in the past have been more likely found at Bailiwick Repertory, Latino Chicago, and the European Repertory Company. It’s a fitting cast for a play that seeks to portray a cross section of modern America’s underdogs–but the talent and variety on Steppenwolf’s stage also make the unsuccessful result all the more disappointing.

East-coast playwright Charles L. Mee has made a specialty of using classic texts as the basis for commentary on contemporary life. His Orestes, presented last year by Roadworks Productions, jumbled together Euripides’ tragicomedy with material appropriated from such sources as William S. Burroughs, Brett Easton Ellis, and women’s magazines to create a nihilistic satire on the media-saturated, morally drifting modern world. But here, inspired by Gorky’s 1902 portrait of derelicts and drifters in a Russian flophouse, Mee wants to exalt the human capacity for compassion and joy in the face of poverty and despair. Unfortunately, Time to Burn–like The Lower Depths, only more so–is undone by its schematic construction, which turns a tribe of social outcasts into a collection of archetypes voicing platitudes such as “Joy has something of the sacred in it,” “Of all human qualities the greatest is sympathy,” and “Life is such a mixed bag–hardly ever all good or all bad.” What for Gorky was a reflection of his bitter, battered life is for Mee an academic conceit about the eloquence of the alienated.

Updating Gorky’s turn-of-the-century Russia to what the program labels “nighttime in America” (take that, Ronald Reagan!), Time to Burn is set in an abandoned factory turned into a dingy crash pad by its anything-for-a-buck owner, the vulgar and venal Vinnie Pazzi (Larry Russo). The gypsies, tramps, and thieves who inhabit the place (using worktables and scaffolds as bunk beds in James Schuette’s cluttered multilevel set) include a Brazilian transsexual (Alexandra Billings) whose rich fantasy life is derived principally from paperback romance novels; a Bulgarian computer-electronics engineer (the powerful Yasen Peyankov) determined to rise by the capitalist work ethic; his consumptive, dying Polish wife (Marilyn Dodds Frank); a combative Bosnian girl (Mayberry) prone to political disputes with the Bulgarian; an African-American bag lady (Irma P. Hall) who fantasizes about eggs Benedict breakfasts and collects elegant knickknacks like snuffboxes and bell cords; a Greek actor (Romanos Isaac) who declaims Aeschylus and Aristophanes when he’s not shooting up heroin; a lame Puerto Rican (Frankie Davila); the landlord’s faithless Asian wife Trang (Tonray Ho) and her sister Nguyen (Manao DeMuth); and a charming thief named Billy (Jeb Brown), ethnically identified merely as “a Midwesterner” (huh?), who’s had an affair with Trang but is in love with Nguyen. Newcomers to this multiethnic enclave are Tertius (Paul Mullins), a classically educated, Waspy east-coast futures trader ruined by bad investments–Mee’s updated version of Gorky’s aristocratic gambler–and Schlomo (Nussbaum), the quintessential wandering Jew.

Over the play’s 90 minutes, each character has his or her moment in the spotlight–literally, as Landau signals the Important Speeches by having lighting designer Scott Zielinski illuminate the speaker while darkening the rest of the set. Moments of conflict and insight follow upon each other in calculated fashion; soliloquies alternate with meticulously choreographed group set pieces–Billings leading a passionate sing-along of the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You,” Peyankov leading a simple, eloquent folk dance, the whole bunch stripping naked and lining up for a short, secret shower while the cheapskate landlord’s away. Every moment is carefully chosen for maximum effect–but almost nothing carries any emotional power. While the actors’ dignity and earnestness keep their characters from succumbing to cliche, little here adds anything new to the play’s timeless themes of human endurance and transcendence or to the current issues it addresses: the Balkan conflict, welfare reform, junk bonds, and alternative sexuality. (“Life is more complicated than it used to be,” Nussbaum comments wryly after listening to Billings ruminate on the pleasures and inconveniences of rubber clothing; Gorky would surely agree.)

The Lower Depths is the quintessential ensemble play–the model for more recent works like Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead and Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings–and Landau has forged a troupe of diverse individuals into an appropriately seamless whole. But the vibrant interplay of productions like Steppenwolf’s famed Balm in Gilead of the early 80s or last year’s often electric Small Craft Warnings at Mary-Arrchie is absent, supplanted by the mural-like placement of figures around a sprawling stage, recalling (perhaps in homage) photos of shows at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, where The Lower Depths had its premiere. As the individuals in the play’s conscientious cross section of types take turns revealing their downtrodden lives and romantic illusions, the intended panorama of human life becomes a diorama–impressively detailed but lifeless. Admirably well meaning but ultimately empty, Time to Burn leaves The Lower Depths stranded in the shallows.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Mihael Broslow.