The plays are new, but the themes are familiar. Two of the three scripts receiving developmental productions in Steppenwolf Theatre’s seventh annual First Look Repertory of New Work—Zayd Dohrn’s Want and Carly Mensch’s Oblivion—fit the upper-middle-class-people-with-existential-traumas mold that’s dominated at American regional theaters in recent decades. The third, Christina Anderson’s Man in Love, taps into issues of class, race, and gender with its tale of a nameless 1930s metropolis stalked by economic desperation and a serial killer who preys on young black women.
I can’t say that any of the three feels fully realized at this stage of the game, despite generally strong direction and ensemble work. But each offers moments of wit, sorrow, and insight into the human desires for what you can’t have, what’s bad for you, and what’s simply evil. A teen filmmaker in Oblivion yearns for a connection with critic Pauline Kael, unaware that Kael is dead. A group of addicts attempt do-it-yourself “therapy on steroids” in Want. And then there’s Paul Pare, Jr., the serial killer at the center of Anderson’s poetic demi-noir.
AS PLAYED BY THE MAGNETIC Namir Smallwood, Pare is quiet and self-contained but always friendly and polite to strangers. In other words, he’s a walking compendium of the standard markers for psychopathic murderers—except that, contrary to the usual profile, he’s black. And that twist is what gives Man in Love much of its intellectual and emotional heft.
We know from the opening scene that Pare is a killer. But while other characters unpeel their secrets, his psychological underpinnings remain tantalizingly mysterious. We hear the story of his father being lynched. We hear chilling monologues in which he categorizes—catechizes, really—the bones and muscles of the human body. And we learn that in the “Zoo District,” as the African-American section of Anderson’s town is called, young women of color are as dispensable and forgettable as they are today, when Nancy Grace can wax breathless over a blonde girl disappearing in Aruba but ignore the thousands of Mexican women slaughtered in Ciudad Juarez.
Anderson expands her focus to include a rather generic pair of Depression-era drifters, an agoraphobic young black woman, and a transvestite (played by a sympathetic, world-weary Ryan Lanning) who runs rent parties. Each of these strands has promise, and director Robert O’Hara has a pretty firm handle on the chilling, meditative quality of the dialogue. But Anderson seems to be forcing the arc of the interlocking narratives in order to make points about the nature of social displacement.
WANT, AS THE TITLE IMPLIES, also deals with unsavory obsessions. Young Marley (Janelle Kroll in Juliette Lewis mode) shows up on the doorstep of a beach house where a group of addiction-rehab refugees have set up housekeeping together. The cult-like nature and unsavory power plays at treatment programs like Synanon aren’t exactly a secret, and, thanks to “Celebrity Rehab” and Lindsay Lohan, the lingua franca of recovery has entered the vernacular to a numbing extent. Consequently, though there’s plenty of wit in Dohrn’s play, the premise wears thin after a while. What’s more, the conclusion feels inchoate and pat.
Still, Kimberly Senior’s sinewy direction generates some strong performances, particularly those by Audrey Francis as a chip-on-her-shoulder wannabe Buddhist and Mick Weber as the odd-man-out people-pleaser whose cheerful pronouncements are issued in a voice strangled with rage.
The most fully realized of the three plays is Mensch’s Oblivion, in which Julie, a Manhattan teenager sensitively played by Fiona Robert, tells her smug liberal-agnostic parents—a PBS producer and an attorney-turned-pulp-novelist—that she wants to be a Christian. Mom (Elizabeth Rich, pulled tighter than Joan Rivers’s face) is horrified, while dad (the excellent Marc Grapey) plays at being supportive through his pot-induced haze and Kael-loving best friend Bernard (a beguiling Rammel Chan), has his own conflict with his Korean immigrant parents, who, he says, want him to “go to MIT, like every other Asian.”
Matt Miller’s staging mostly achieves a balance between knowing bons mots that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bruce Norris play (dad describes Julie as “the Malcolm Gladwell of women’s basketball”) and the yearnings that drive Mensch’s characters. Oblivion lacks the big ambitions of Man in Love and takes its share of dips at the shallow end of the social-satire pool, but Mensch has crafted the theatrical equivalent of a warm-and-fuzzy independent film about quirky families—and God knows there’s always a market for that on American stages.