Steppenwolf Theatre

“It’s like a two-act ‘Mr. Bill’ show,” my friend said when we were talking the next day about Steppenwolf’s Reckless. I disagree. The “Mr. Bill” routines on Saturday Night Live had something to say.

Reckless does, at least, have a story to tell. In a nutshell, which is where it belongs, it’s this: Rachel, a cheerful suburban housewife prone to what she calls “euphoria attacks,” is told by her husband one Christmas Eve that he has hired a professional killer to murder her. Fleeing out the bedroom window into the snowy night, Rachel is saved by Lloyd, a flannel-shirted semihippie who takes Rachel home to live with him and his quadriplegic, deaf-mute wife Pooty. After a series of bizarre, disorienting, seldom-explained misadventures that prove fatal to everyone around her, the disaster-prone Rachel undergoes a mental collapse then finds a new career as a psychiatrist–in which capacity, in a mock-Dickensian final twist, she is visited by the now-adult son she abandoned when he was a child.

Throughout, playwright Craig Lucas takes limp satiric aim at a variety of easy targets–Christmas sentimentality, the psychiatry industry, TV game shows, the computer revolution–while visiting upon Rachel a seemingly endless assortment of gratuitous calamities. Loved ones and strangers drop around her left and right, at times the innocent victims of a murderer whose target was Rachel herself.

The underlying theme behind the different attacks on Rachel is that she’s a meddling do-gooder who inadvertently annoys, angers, and even unhinges the people she’s trying to help. But the incessant vindictiveness with which Lucas stalks his central character conveys a larger message. We’re all trapped, he seems to be saying; terrible things just happen, and the more innocent we are the worse things will go for us.

Which is where Mr. Bill comes in. On Saturday Night Live, a tiny, shrill-voiced, inanimate, helpless doll was subjected to ritual abuses of the most absurd varieties by an all-powerful human. Behind what seemed a weekly exercise in random cruelty, there lay a clever double purpose: the audience was invited to identify both with the little puppet, as a miniature stand-in for all of us plagued by misfortune, and with the human, who after all was really one of us. The Mr. Bill episodes (whose effectiveness was due in large part to their brevity) thus appealed to both the victim and the victimizer in their viewers; they were harmless, vicarious releases for sadistic impulses and a symbolic acting-out of the viewers’ feelings of powerlessness.

In Reckless, we are prevented from identifying with the sources of Rachel’s misfortune, but we can’t identify with Rachel, either–not over the course of a full-length play, anyway. A cartoon like Rachel can be effective in small doses, but after several scenes one starts to want credibility, not to mention purpose. Lucas doesn’t deliver; instead–lacking the sense of moral or political outrage one feels in the cruel comedy of, say, Edward Albee or Christopher Durang–he heaps so much mockery and contempt on his characters that they stop being interesting even as cartoons. So Rachel’s torments–and her spiritual regeneration–don’t register as reflective of anything we might have gone through.

This is all despite the determined efforts of Joan Allen, for whom this production marks a much-anticipated, gravely disappointing return to Steppenwolf after several years of Broadway and film work. An actress of enormous sensitivity, intelligence, and delicacy supported by tensile strength, Allen has proven memorable in roles of real substance (A Lesson From Aloes), and she’s been adept at creating multidimensional characters in superficial plays like Burn This, for which she won a Tony Award. But the limitations of Lucas’s script are just too great; when, at the end, she smiles what’s supposed to be a smile of deep, reflective strength, it doesn’t register as anything other than the smile of dangerous naivete she began with–because the character has never been real enough for Allen to take her anywhere.

In a play loaded with misanthropic and misogynistic ridicule of its characters, Susan Nussbaum as Pooty submits to a role that exploits every snickering sick-humor stereotype that has accompanied, and limited, the image of disabled people. This is ironic, given the work Nussbaum–wheelchair-bound herself since an accident several years ago–has done as an actress, director, and activist to affirm the dignity of disabled people.

Far more effective is Boyd Gaines as Lloyd, the sensitive yet imperfectly foolish nice guy whose life is altered by his chance encounter with Rachel. In part because his role is more a supporting one (and so less subject to Lucas’s taste for gratuitous mockery), Gaines establishes a warm, compelling presence whose second-act shattering has an impact nothing else in the play approaches.

In various smaller roles, Alan Wilder, Jane Lynch, Molly Regan, and Michael Krawic acquit themselves well. Terry Kinney’s fluid direction, utilizing Kevin Rigdon’s minimalistic turntable set and effectively buoyed by Richard Woodbury’s alternately ironic and nightmarish sound design, keeps the play moving briskly in hallucinatory flashes. But these virtues are predictable in a Steppenwolf production. What’s becoming equally predictable–and bothersome–is the company’s taste for junky scripts like this. As for Joan Allen and Susan Nussbaum, all I can ask is: is work that hard to come by?