Things Being What They Are

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

You expect some experimental roughness from a theater called the Garage, a what-happens-if-we-connect-these-wires sort of pugnacity. And the sign outside the Steppenwolf Garage acknowledges that expectation, more or less, with language about being dedicated to new artists and next generations and so on. But Steppenwolf’s is an exceptionally comfortable garage–a far better venue than most companies will ever see–so I suppose it’s reasonable that the type of experimentation there be exceptionally comfortable at times too. Hence Wendy MacLeod’s Things Being What They Are, in which the experiment is an anything-but-rough effort to make an entertaining new comedy out of material most readily associated with Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Is there a way, the show asks, to create a Felix Unger and Oscar Madison for the 21st century?

This turns out to be a trickier question than it may seem. If MacLeod isn’t likely to be mistaken for Artaud on a formal level, she’s nevertheless dealing with a volatile social issue: masculinity in America. Even Simon’s 1965 hit turned on anxiety over the subject; dispossessed of their family roles, his Felix and Oscar spend the whole play dueling over their notions of appropriate male behavior.

Things have only gotten worse since then. As the father of teenage boys, I can tell you unequivocally that nobody has any idea what it means to be a man anymore. And that in the absence of a working definition, people are coming up with the most appalling hypotheses. The war in Iraq was one. Gangsta rap is another. It’s interesting–and about as indicative as you can get–that women’s genitalia are represented theatrically these days by the soul-searching discourse of The Vagina Monologues while men’s get contorted into fleshy balloon sculpture in Puppetry of the Penis. If that’s not a cry for help I don’t know what is.

Things Being What They Are looks like one playwright’s comic response to that cry. MacLeod is best known as the author of The House of Yes–a quirky, grotesque exercise involving incest and pillbox hats. But she’s put the quirk aside for this play, as if clearing away distractions in order to focus on the experiment at hand. Things Being What They Are is conscientiously set up to be a conventional two-character, single-set comedy about middle-class white guys.

One white guy, Bill, does marketing for Seagram’s–a little queasily, since he’s got compunctions about the morality of selling Black Cherry Fizz wine coolers. The fastidious Felix of the piece (he’s accused at one point of having a pocket protector in his heart), Bill’s just moved into a new condo and is furnishing it in anticipation of the arrival of his wife, Adele–an actress finishing up a gig. Oscar is a neighbor named Jack. Fat, loud, overly familiar, and piercingly lonely since he divorced his wife, Jack turns himself into Bill’s de facto roommate, finding all sorts of reasons not to go back to his own place. Naturally, they bond.

But it’s the way they bond that’s crucial to MacLeod’s Odd Couple update. They do it–well, they do it like women. Women with beer. They face heartache and illness together. They laugh, they cry, they lash out, and they open up to each other. This is not traditional male behavior. As universally depicted in plays, film, and literature, the traditional male response to heartache and illness is to clam up–or talk sports exclusively–at least until overtaken by a paroxysm of violence. But then it’s the failure of the traditional male response that’s led to Iraq, bad rap, Puppetry of the Penis, and complete confusion as to what a man actually is. So maybe MacLeod’s doing us all a service in positing the new man as a woman.

It certainly doesn’t hurt the show any. MacLeod’s script is by turns acid and tender, and funny in a way that–unlike that man Simon’s punch lines–proceeds powerfully from character and context. What’s more, there’s something at once sweet and disarming (“liberating” is far too strong a word, but the sense tends in that direction) about seeing these two find their way to each other.

Rick Snyder’s direction helps: always matter-of-fact and apt, especially with regard to the delicate heterosexual male business of when a touch is appropriate. Playing Bill, Timothy Gregory’s essential challenge is to move believably into and through successive layers of acceptance, and he does it with considerable grace–especially in the first act, when he makes a delightful transition from “How can I get rid of this person?” to “What a character” without sloshing over into “Be my friend?”

But Keith Kupferer’s Jack is the reason to see the show. I have relatives like this guy: crude and brilliant, thick and soulful, painfully stuck and stunningly self-aware–God’s fool in the body of an accountant. Jack–and Kupferer–continually disclose themselves in odd, funny, unexpected ways.

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