The Viewing Room

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

From the beginning, the folks at Steppenwolf have been better known for the quality of their acting than for their material. Even when their plays were strong–as when they revived Sam Shepard’s True West and Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead in the early 80s–their productions were stronger. Over the last few years, however, it’s become painfully obvious that Steppenwolf has been running out of suitable new work, as anyone who sat through the utterly awful The Rise and Fall of Little Voice can attest.

Which is why the New Plays Lab sounded like just what the dramaturge ordered. Here was a forum for young, rising playwrights paired with young, rising directors and given the time, space, and incentive (a Steppenwolf production!) to create new material. Surely they could come up with something better than Evelyn and the Polka King. But if the first play to emerge from the New Plays Lab, Daniel J. Rubin’s didactic one-act The Viewing Room, is any indication, something has gone terribly wrong in the laboratory.

Rubin’s painstakingly workshopped play is based on a premise that, like the New Plays Lab itself, looks good on paper: in the near future, prison overcrowding will be relieved by placing prisoners in cages in the homes of average Americans. At least it’s the kind of premise that makes grant writers happy, especially if the prisoner is black and the family is a white, middle-class, mildly yupped Gen X couple. “Oh, oh, oh!” I hear them crying out, “I see possibilities for lots of pointed social commentary!” And they would be right. Lots of possibilities, most of them ignored.

Oh, Rubin touches on the issues that come to mind when you think of a privileged couple spending 90 minutes onstage with a representative of the underclass: the judicial system is unfair, rich kids get all the breaks, it’s hard to bridge the gulf that separates affluent whites from poor blacks. But when it comes time to explore the less obvious or more controversial issues raised by such a premise (like “What kind of police state would encourage citizens to house condemned prisoners in their living rooms?”), Rubin is either strangely silent or he suggests a metaphor–hinting that the yup couple are as much prisoners as the man in the cage–so slight and inane you’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it.

But it’s as a creator of theater, not as a social critic, that Rubin really stumbles. His play is peopled with almost featureless puppets (ably animated by Paul Adelstein, Heidi Mokrycki, and Darryl Alan Reed). We learn only enough about Brian and Gab–that they’re young, gifted, and Jewish–to identify with/despise (choose one) their Crate and Barrel lives. Tellingly, we learn nothing about the prisoner, Kyle, except that he’s black and going to be executed for killing someone. Missing are the telling details: where the story takes place, how the characters came to be who they are, what the prisoner’s exact crime was, how his lawyer (public defender?) might have screwed up (so that Kyle awaits lethal injection instead of parole), why Gab married a drip like Brian (and vice versa). Without these details we don’t care one iota about the characters.

The story, such as it is, is so lacking in conflict–its slice-of-life scenes never quite build to anything–you could be forgiven for thinking the thing plotless. Even when something big does happen–such as Kyle’s disappearance from one scene to the next, implying he’s been executed–the event is surrounded by so much nondramatic chatter it barely rouses the audience from its art-heavy slumber. And remember, I saw this on press night, with a house full of critics and friends of the cast and crew. How do you think a paying audience eager for intellectual stimulation will react when they realize by the second blackout that they’ve been sold a bill of goods?

Which brings us to two larger questions: What did the folks at the New Plays Lab think they were doing? And why didn’t anyone stop them? Anna D. Shapiro, both director of the New Plays Lab and director of this show, must have had plenty of opportunities to steer The Viewing Room. True, she didn’t direct the workshop production (Abby Epstein did), but she did presumably have veto power over it if it didn’t turn out well. I assume no one twisted her arm, either, when it came time to direct the play here. I can only assume she didn’t think it was going badly.

Maybe someone from marketing convinced Shapiro that the best way to attract callow, young, white urbanites to Steppenwolf was to make plays about callow, young, white urbanites. The black prisoner even has one of those upper-middle-class Caucasian names popular on Friends. Maybe opening a New Plays Lab production in a high-stakes arena like Steppenwolf stifled everyone’s imagination. Perhaps all concerned were so determined to create something perfect that they neglected to take any risks and created something that isn’t any good.

Which kind of depresses me. Because then maybe every play to come out of the lab will be one of these shallow, well-meaning monstrosities–utterly undramatic attempts at serious theater that will leave audiences begging for less.

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