A cluttered living room. A Black woman stands left in profile, her hand outstretched. On the right is a couch where a young white woman sits listening.
Krystel McNeil and Rae Gray in Spay at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble Credit: Michael Brosilow

There are currently two plays running in Chicago that talk about self-medicating, addiction, and how one’s actions impact those around them. One involves working-class people, a snapshot of reality for many across the country, and the other a figure in popular culture, a wealthy man whose lived experience is far from the reality for most. As we return, cautiously, to the water of live theater after so many months away living through a global crisis, the ways in which we engage with theater is forever changed. 

So, all my love of Sean Hayes aside, I can’t help but wonder why we are still following the status quo in theater after so many months of saying things would be different. 

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, a champion of work by women, doesn’t have a celebrity to bring in the tourist crowds for their production of Spay. They don’t have a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright at the helm for this show. Instead, Rivendell has up-and-coming playwright Madison Fiedler, who wrote a play to shine a light on a crisis that continues to plague Appalachia, where she is from. 

Spay gives audiences a glimpse of provocative storytelling that can inspire them to do something. It’s not a play without its levity, it doesn’t feel like a 90-minute slog, and yet it does more in that time than Good Night, Oscar does in its nearly identical runtime. 

As a storefront theater, Rivendell runs on just a small fraction of the operating budget of the Goodman, which is one of the largest theaters in Chicagoland. Yet the spirit of Chicago’s storefront theater scene is that it can compete with the big houses any day. In the case of these two tales, there is no competition. 

Good Night, Oscar, by award-winning playwright Doug Wright, is fine. People come to see Sean Hayes, spend their money at the nearby restaurants, and go home talking about how Hayes is amazing as concert pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant. And that’s fine. But after 18 months without live theater, I’m done with “fine.” I’m done with shows that use someone’s mental illness and addiction as the butt of every joke, even if that same person is making the jokes along with them. So, like Jessie Bond from Splash, I cannot figure out why this play is necessary right now.

During the pandemic as well as this period of continued endemic we are now in, there has been a 25 percent increase of anxiety and depression worldwide. Given that Levant was known as a hypochondriac, it’s worth noting that COVID-19 has introduced its own form of that too. And the pandemic has only made traditional hypochondria worse. Because theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum and must, by nature, be taken in by people in the moment, I’m struggling to see why this is a show that’s needed right now. After watching Britney Spears break free from the shackles of being considered unwell and seeing countless other celebrities play off their mental illness for a laugh, it’s hard for me to watch these scenarios continue to play out. 

In the context of Wright’s play, Levant has myriad support around him in part because of his money. He has access to care as well as the means to still keep his family in their home while he seeks treatment. But Noah from Spay? She’s living paycheck to paycheck, taking refuge with her sister Harper as she tries to get clean from opioids. Levant was addicted to those too, though in talking about him historically they’re often referred to as “painkillers.” 

Opioid must be too loaded a word to use.

Both Noah and Oscar engage in self-deprecating humor. They berate themselves to amuse those around them, probably as a way of staving off the fear their addictions introduce to them. These characters are foils of one another, representing two similar yet also entirely different worlds. They exist more than half a century apart from one another, yet Noah’s world of today doesn’t mock her illness. Spay is a more dramatic piece of theater that takes addiction—along with its impossible mountain of problems—seriously, even though it centers a character inspired by real-life scenarios who is still, in fact, fictional.

Odd man out: Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in Good Night, Oscar at the Goodman Credit Liz Lauren

Oscar Levant wasn’t fictional. Wright told the Chicago Sun-Times that writing Good Night, Oscar was a research-labor-intensive work and that he wanted to bring back awareness of Levant, who performed at great cost to his own well-being. “He did what all artists do, which is carve out a piece of his heart and hold it up for public inspection and hope that people recognize themselves in it,” Wright told the paper. “But I think that all comes at a cost to your privacy and sometimes your well-being. It’s a certain kind of bloodletting when your work is that personal and that naked, and I think Oscar did pay a price for it.”

We’re beyond 60 years since the 1958 setting of Good Night, Oscar and although the play has brought Levant back onto the scene, it is still cementing Levant’s existence as a neurotic performer. If elevating him back into a place of notoriety were really the endeavor, why showcase a fictional take on such a low point of his life? Don’t we all deserve to be remembered for our achievements instead of our pitfalls? Benjamin Ivry put it best in his 2012 piece for Forward: “Even if Levant’s shtick about his mental illness cut too close to reality to be a laugh riot today, posterity will remember not his gags, but his enduring accomplishments.” 

Frequent laughter roaring from the audience made Good Night, Oscar an uncomfortable show for me. Did I laugh at some of the self-deprecation? Certainly. Did it start to feel overdone after about 20 minutes of that self-deprecation? Yes, yes it did. Critical praise for the humor of this production is a reminder that the stigma of addiction and mental illness is still so prevalent that we would rather laugh than care. Entering a new age of theater out of this pandemic was supposed to mean real change, wasn’t it? 

In many ways, Levant’s self-effacement is like staring in a mirror for me. I’ve always made light of my own neuroses, my anxieties, and how the world can sometimes be kinder if I laugh with it. But as society seems to be taking a turn away from mental illness as taboo, plays with rhetoric like this worry me. When one play like Good Night, Oscar seemingly uses humor to play off shame and another like Spay highlights how pervasive shame is in addiction, it feels like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

Because of his wealth, no one has to have a conversation with Levant; they can just send him away. But because of their lack of resources, Noah and her family don’t have that privilege. It isn’t fun to have a conversation with someone about not putting themselves down to cover up their pain, especially if you’re the person being spoken to. Believe me, I’ve been that person. If as a society we are going to move away from mental illness as the fluorescent pink elephant in the room, we can’t hide from those conversations. 

I’d rather have the tough conversation. Spay encourages us not to continue covering up discomfort with humor. That’s a hard pill to swallow. When you’re used to making yourself the point of levity to avoid the uncomfortable, it can be a struggle to walk away. Every single day of my life as far back as I can remember, I have made fun of myself to minimize how my anxiety makes other people feel. It’s exhausting. And it was exhausting to watch Hayes have to do that as a fictional version of a man he is drawn to because of their similarities. (In the same Sun-Times piece, Hayes said, “I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in the past and studied intense piano for years, as did Oscar. I relate mostly to his plight and his kind of place in the world, although I don’t suffer nearly as deeply as he did with anxiety and depression.”)

That’s why I’ll always maintain that Joy was the villain in Inside Out. Sadness gets treated like a virus for simply existing. It’s so hard to watch people just trying to get by without being a burden to everyone else. 

Spay, on the other hand, isn’t shy about the realities of addiction, because it can’t be. The family depicted in the show doesn’t have deep pockets or means for proper care for Noah in her withdrawal. The majority of people struggling with opioid addiction don’t get the chance (or chances in Levant’s case) to go to rehab. They go to prison. And when addicts get out of prison, if they get out of prison, they are over 129 times more likely to die from an overdose within two weeks. 

Other options presented to regular folks addicted to opioids include problematic means of “helping,” which is something Fiedler’s play highlights. This work is a reminder that theater can spur audiences to do something to help in a meaningful way once they leave their seats. This is the kind of work that should be put on a pedestal, handed an overly generous budget, and set onto a path for greater things. It doesn’t celebrate a mid-20th-century icon. In fact, it doesn’t celebrate anything. Spay reminds us that, even when the news isn’t inundated with stories about something, crises are still rampant in our country. 

It’s a play that makes us remember people we’ve lost to their addiction demons. 

Rivendell is doing their part in that too. From hosting trainings on Narcan use to offering seeds to plant in memory of folks we love, they’re going above and beyond what they have to do as a theater. They could very easily just do this show with no other programming involved. Yet, that’s not the case for them. Rivendell is encouraging us to not leave the experiences of the play at the door. 

There is nothing wrong with a play that lends itself to more humor than seriousness sometimes. It’s OK if every piece of theater doesn’t compel us to change the world. At the same time, when two plays that are so similar in scope are running at the same time, in the same city, it’s impossible not to look at them both and wonder—why?