The Well-Appointed Room

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Richard Greenberg’s The Well-Appointed Room isn’t a play. It’s a pair of one-acts united under a single title and a frail conceit: the couple in the second one-act moves into a Manhattan apartment vacated by the couple in the first. This may resonate powerfully with New York theatergoers driven mad by real estate speculation: picture an entire audience thinking, “Where’d they find a place that size?” But in Chicago the condo market just isn’t all that compelling.

Fortunately other, more interesting themes arrive to help unite the two halves of the work, receiving its first production from Steppenwolf Theatre Company under Terry Kinney’s direction. They take quite a while to show up, though, and in the meantime it’s completely reasonable to wonder what the hell is going on.

The first piece, “Nostalgia,” reminds me of a classic George Booth cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker in 1970. A writer sits at his Royal manual; his wife stands by, holding a sandwich on a plate, and says, “I’ve got an idea for a story: Gus and Ethel live on Long Island, on the North Shore. He works sixteen hours a day writing fiction. Ethel never goes out, never does anything except fix Gus sandwiches, and in the end she becomes a nympho-lesbo-killer-whore. Here’s your sandwich.” Greenberg’s author, Stewart, writes plays, not fiction, and his wife, Natalie, probably doesn’t fix him sandwiches–in fact, as “Nostalgia” opens Stewart’s making a very big deal out of cooking an omelet for their Sunday breakfast. But the sense of a woman pissed to the point of pure, acid loathing is precisely the same. Really, “Nostalgia” could be the sequel to the cartoon: way past ready to walk out, Natalie doesn’t care who gets the cool furniture or the Jonathan Adler ceramics or even the chichi apartment itself; she just wants to be holding Stewart’s quivering, bloody, and of course detached balls in her tight fist when she goes.

There’s never a moment’s doubt about Natalie’s feelings or where she’s headed. Only Stewart is taken by surprise, and that’s because he’s too busy exhibiting the trait that’s alienated her so completely: a pompous, self-involved, self-plagiarizing, and unmerited blowhardism. “I made a game of it,” Natalie tells him. “I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I hate him? And see if he notices?’ And you didn’t.” They’re Albee’s George and Martha without dinner guests, imagined children, or that little deep-down spark of love. Just a lot of college-educated bile.

The conclusion is so foregone that you begin to wonder whether “Nostalgia” isn’t an exercise of some sort. Maybe Greenberg’s attempt to see how long he can sustain a scene without surprises. Or to write the world’s shortest Aristotelian tragedy–insofar as Stewart can be said to fall from a great height in real time as a result of that which he didn’t see coming even though it was staring him in the face. I came out of it impressed with Amy Morton’s unmerciful cussedness as Natalie but without a clue as to why it mattered.

It isn’t until well into the second one-act, “Prolepsis,” that “Nostalgia” finds a context. “Prolepsis” concerns a pair of young New Yorkers, Mark and Gretchen, who meet cute at a bus shelter while waiting out a storm. Mark narrates, describing himself as the compleat homebody. “Deep down,” he says, “I’ve always been a married man.” He finds Gretchen “poetic,” loving her dreaminess and missing certain worrisome indications that–as he says now and then, trailing off–“a more astute man might have . . .” They marry, get rich, and go looking for real estate. They’re on the verge of closing on a place downtown when 9/11 intervenes, effectively rendering downtown uninhabitable. They go looking again and find Stewart and Natalie’s old apartment.

Gretchen gets pregnant and goes into a state of prolepsis–the delusion that things that haven’t yet happened have already occurred. She insists that the baby she carries was born some years back; that it was a boy–Jack–and grew to manhood; that she and Mark are now empty nesters, packing up for their retirement in Bucks County; and that she’d better do something about her extraordinary weight gain. She scares the hell out of Mark.

Inasmuch as Mark advises us at the start that his story ends happily, there’s nothing lost in telling you that Gretchen has a healthy baby and comes out of her proleptic fantasy. It seems that her waking dream was a response to the trauma of 9/11–a way to beat the uncertainties of the world by having a complete and satisfying life in her head. But here’s where “Nostalgia” casts its retrospective shadow. Both Mark and Stewart are presented as men with strong dream lives of their own, around which they try to mold their flesh-and-blood relationships. But Natalie has the luxury of walking out on Stewart’s dream. Did the destruction of the towers foreclose that possibility for Gretchen? Or did she walk out by going crazy? Is little Jack the cure for what ails her or the permanent tie that guarantees the syndrome will turn chronic? What’s the happy ending here, and to whom does it belong? The best thing about Greenberg’s play is how it sneaks up on you with questions like these, offering implications.

Kinney’s direction, on the other hand, seems calculated to preclude implications. I wonder especially what “Nostalgia” would be like if Tracy Letts’s Stewart had been permitted any tonality other than full-out, fatuous barking. Kinney offers a kind of brutalist aggression that chases out potentially interesting, even challenging subtleties.

Still, Letts is stunningly effective in a subsidiary role in “Prolepsis.” Kate Arrington allows Gretchen’s initial ditziness to slide neatly and powerfully into the realms of the haunted. Josh Charles is appropriately charming as Mark, though I think he makes a mistake in denying his character the shadows that would have given the charm more resonance. And thanks to Robert Brill’s scenic design, the title character–the well-appointed room–is a masterpiece of period, place, and status.

When: Through 3/12: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-335-1650

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