The Last Barbecue


at Angel Island

By Jack Helbig

Walking back to my car one clear July night after a visit with in-laws, I realized that the wide, crew-cut lawns and winding, deserted streets of crisp, new suburbs–carved out of farmland in Schaumburg, Wheaton, and beyond–were the means to an end, and that end was silence.

True, stillness has an upside, as my corporate brother-in-law might say–nothing to jangle the nerves after a day at the office. But it also muffles harsh feelings and stifles eccentricity and dissent. Suburban silence resembles the hushed roar of nothingness in corporate offices, where everyone speaks in soft, guarded voices and everyone wears the same casual uniform–khakis, golf shirt, Bass shoes–to show he’s retained his individuality.

Chicago playwright Brett Neveu understands the importance of silence: The Last Barbecue contains some of the most beautiful, pregnant, well-orchestrated silences this side of Harold Pinter. And like Pinter’s pauses, Neveu’s contain a universe of unexpressed feeling, of half-hidden resentments and regrets.

The story line is minimal, almost nonexistent. And the action is mundane in the extreme. But like a Japanese monk painting a breathtaking mountain view in a few brush strokes, Neveu finds significance in small events–filling an ice chest, running out to the store, cracking open a beer. Set in a suburban backyard, this dark comedy offers two snapshots of a typical barbecue, before and after. But this is not the relaxed burnt-meat fest of Weber grill ads. It’s a time when all the negative feelings roiling beneath the surface for years threaten to erupt.

Ted–a grumpy, potbellied middle-aged man–spends the play seething. Everything pisses him off: his wife asking him to start the grill, his adult son dropping by early with his wife. Something has gone wrong at work for Ted, but we never find out whether the fact that his coworkers are “a bunch of assholes” is the cause of his discontent. Something also seems to be bothering Ted’s wife, Jan, though her feelings come out in more passive-aggressive ways–in the subtly hostile way she orders him around with questions: “Have you started the charcoal yet?” “Is there enough ice?” Where Ted controls situations by repressing his feelings, Jan obsessively controls everyone around her.

Barry, their immature adult child, resembles both parents. Like his father, he seems on the verge of boiling over–especially when Ted shows his displeasure that Barry and his wife aren’t staying for the barbecue. They’re on their way to Barry’s ten-year high school reunion, and clearly he’s obsessed with proving to his old chums that he’s not the “asshole” he was back then. Like his mother, he tries to control his anxiety by controlling his environment: his well-being seems to depend entirely on whether he can keep his new shirt clean and sharp looking.

In 90 minutes Neveu creates a world where something has unmistakably gone terribly wrong, and yet no one has the guts–or the words–to say exactly what it is. Neveu is not the first to map this terrain. John Updike and John Cheever built careers out of detailing the disappointments and rituals of this sad world, though they described an earlier generation and a slightly different milieu: east coast, better off, and much more overtly Waspish than Neveu’s. Though he never gives an explicit location, his characters interact in very midwestern ways: they take pains, even when furious, to seem polite and upbeat.

More recently Eric Bogosian tackled the same subject–the dysfunctional barbecue–in Griller, which premiered at the Goodman a few years ago. But that play seems forced, overwritten, and too explicit compared to The Last Barbecue, where nothing is explained–everything is packed into the subtext.

Neveu is lucky that his play landed in the hands of a director as capable as Ann Filmer, who’s shown a gift for laconic suburban comedy: she found great comic riches in Steve Martin’s WASP despite his trademark goofiness and Ionesco and Pirandello rip-offs. She also makes the most of Neveu’s script, turning every pause into a chance for drama. Ted doesn’t just carry out the ice chest–he enters, sighs, sets down the chest, looks around, and sighs again.

In the wrong hands, these moments might have seemed overdone. But Filmer and her cast know how far to push things. For the play to work, we must sense there are a thousand unstated stories behind the ones we hear. Neveu forces us to read between the lines, and a good actor will give the audience more than enough to read. At the same time, we must never catch the actors milking their silences. The superb cast deliver nuanced, mildly exaggerated performances that bring Neveu’s point home. Don Blair is particularly killing as Ted, never actually blowing up. Ann James as Jan offers the perfect complement to his free-floating anger, reacting with an oblivious chirpiness that reveals her own sugar-coated rage.

When Barry comes back to his folks’ house from the reunion with an old girlfriend in tow (the wife went home early), Matthew Brumlow as Barry and Ashley Bishop as the old flame hit just the right notes. We sense the sexual tension between them but also their feelings of shame–and in Barry’s case, the overpowering urge to right some previous wrong step. We never find out, however–either from Neveu’s dialogue or from Brumlow’s and Bishop’s performances–exactly what these two expected or hoped would happen at his parents’ house.

But then, as Neveu and Filmer make brilliantly clear, that’s what the suburbs are all about: unstated hopes and unfulfilled desires smothered in a blanket of silence.