Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Adultery is the subject of Alexandra Gersten’s play My Thing of Love, set in the present in south-suburban Evergreen Park, and the torrent of emotions released when Elly (Laurie Metcalf) discovers her husband of 12 years, Jack (Tom Irwin), has taken a young lover pretty much carries the play. This is both the play’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The emotional roller-coaster ride guarantees that we respond strongly to the characters. But the rawness feels empty after a while; the characters don’t have much of an inner life or any awareness of their shallowness.

Much like the aimless narcissists and ex-potheads who populate Ann Beattie’s fiction, Jack drifts through his life, into adultery and out of his marriage, without regard for the consequences. And though Elly has a strong desire to keep the marriage together, she too seems to act out of instinct. (If she really thought about her shallow prick of a husband, she’d drop him in a second, or make it clear that she’s staying only for the children.) It’s very hard to identify with these characters. We laugh at them, not with them.

Which brings me to Metcalf’s performance. Without Metcalf this production would be considerably less successful. She makes Gersten’s more feeble lines seem witty, her sometimes flabby dialogue seem tightly written. She crackles through the play, a south-suburban Medea full of fury as she confronts her husband’s adultery, acting as a kind of emotional dynamo for the play, giving it juice whenever its energy flags.

In fact, the performance of this remarkable actress–so ill-used two years ago in the silly, superficial Wrong Turn at Lungfish–makes one wonder whether the play was written with her strengths in mind. I suppose it’s possible, since Gersten did develop the play as part of Steppenwolf’s New Plays Project.

But even if the part wasn’t written for her, Metcalf makes it her own. When she is funny, she is very funny–and the play, especially early on, contains moments of extraordinary comedy. But when she despairs at her faltering marriage, you feel her pain. There are times when her emotional agility, as she careens from glib sarcasm to anger to tears and back in the space of a line of dialogue, literally takes your breath away.

Clearly all of her years on TV, playing Roseanne’s sharp-tongued sister, have not dulled Metcalf’s acting ability. If anything, she seems stronger and more resilient. (Of course, Roseanne is smarter than your average sitcom.)

The downside to Metcalf’s virtuosity is that everyone else in the play pales next to her. Irwin in particular doesn’t stand a chance next to her heat, in part because he just doesn’t have Metcalf’s emotional range and in part because his character is so cowardly, ambivalent, and repressed next to hers.

Likewise, Kathryn Erbe’s whiny, mousy performance as the other woman makes her seem even more of a trifle than she’s meant to be. Over the course of the play she never manages to evoke much sympathy for her side of the story, even when it’s clear how desperately lonely she is. The least successful scene in the show is the one in which Metcalf does not appear: a late-night romantic interlude between the philandering husband and his young mistress, which is so lacking in chemistry that it’s hard to believe they’re attracted to each other.

Metcalf’s superiority certainly makes sense within the context of the play–she’s the one being wronged after all, and she’s the only character, other than the school guidance counselor (ably played by Tim Hopper), who seems aware that more is at stake than the happiness of a middle-aged man and the pretty young thing he picked up at a convenience store.

Still, Metcalf so outshines the other actors that, to paraphrase my theater companion, watching My Thing of Love is kind of like going to a Wings concert: it’s worth putting up with for a chance to see the star.

In my July 3 review of Profiles’ production of Orphans I erroneously reported that True West was the second show Steppenwolf took to New York. In fact, it was the first.

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