The Smartest Men in the Room

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As you my dear readers know, despite my penchant for outsized theatricality, I am also a sucker for brainy plays (cue Tom Stoppard, Frank Galati’s adaptations of Haruki Murakami).  I love navigating through intricately-constructed narratives, subtext-filled dialogue, dense themes, and clever meta-theater. Admittedly however, I also, at times, can find some wordplay-heavy and idea-laden theater to be distancing. Ultimately, I want my theater to hit me as much and as forcefully in the gut and in the heart as it does in the noggin. Two really smart plays from two very smart playwrights have opened over the past couple of weeks in Chicago:  Remy Bumppo’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning play, Seascape, directed by new Artistic Director Nick Sandys, and Victory Gardens’ Chicago premiere of Bill Cain’s recent work, Equivocation, directed by the indispensable Sean Graney.  Both are intellectually interesting plays, and the playwrights have intriguing things to say…and say them non-stop.  Both are talky, heady work, but both have also been enlivened and given a lot of heart by superlative acting. In my opinion, Seascape, because of a dominant, remarkable performance by Annabel Armour, is the more successful in transforming the work from one that is chilly and removed from the audience, a trap that Equivocation does not fully escape from.

I am a big fan of Edward Albee and consider Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance two of my all-time best plays.  Seascape opens on a beach where an older couple are having a picnic and their conversation evolves into two very different perspectives on later life: Nancy, played by Armour, perhaps sensing her mortality, or rebelling against her social expectations, or a complicated combination of both, wants to roam beaches and climb mountains around the world and live life to the fullest; her husband Charlie, played by Patrick Clear, just wants to rest and lie still. The tone of the conversation ricochets from debate to verbal jousting to guilt-provocation to pleading to resignation, and Armour dominates this first act with her clearly-etched, layered portrayal of a woman who feels she has spent a lot of her life boxed in, and now feels she has a fleeting moment of opportunity to make her own decisions and steer her own course.  Clear is excellent, but most of the time he is more reactive to Armour’s blazing meteor of a performance.  At the end of the first act, the lizards arrive.  Yep, lizards.  Sarah (Emjoy Gavino) and Leslie (Sean Parris) have come up from the bottom of the sea curious as to what life can be outside of their amphibian community.  The rest of the play is a dizzying, sometimes dazzling exchange among the four regarding interpersonal communications, relationships, men vs.women, apprehension at “the other”, emotional and intellectual maturity.  These are all interesting topics, and the four principals (Gavino and Parris are a wonderful match for Armour and Clear, with Armour still clearly steering the second act) keep the audience engaged in Albee’s reflections and provocations. However, Seascape is still a handful (brainful?), and audiences looking for pure escapism may feel their brains hurt.

Sandys’ direction is strongly-deliberate yet unobtrusive, and the pacing doesn’t flag. Angela Weber Miller’s realistic beach set and Rachel Laritz’s creative lizard costumes are standouts as well.  If I have a quibble about the show, it’s the perplexing casting of two actors of color as the lizards.  As an audience member of color, seeing African-American and Asian actors portray “the amphibians” while Caucasian performers play the “the humans” is quite jarring. It’s a stereotypical, not to mention uncomfortable, visual depiction of “the other” in performing arts, something that I hope we continue to move away from with force and determination.

There is no such unsettling casting in Graney’s staging of Equivocation, whose six-person multi-cultural cast all play characters living in seventeenth-century England, but with all the down-to-earth, approachable, contemporary speech patterns and mannerisms of 21st century Chicagoans.  Cain has written a smart and smart-alecky play about the playwright Shagspeare (a stand-in, ahem, for that other playwright) being commissioned by the royal court to write a historical play about a contemporary event, The Gunpowder Plot of 1605. As he researches the subject matter, he gradually realizes that the official version of events radically differ from the version of the alleged “plotters”.  Cain makes strong, vigorous points about a writer’s responsibility to tell the unvarnished truth when writing about real-life events. He also throws in a whole lot of insider theater jokes, verbal puns and double-puns, meta-theater (actual events are cross-cut with scenes from plays), multiple roles for the cast (which the actors gamely and bravely take on), and bite-sized dips into a dizzying variety of topics, from feminism to Machiavellian politicking to King James’ homosexuality to Jesuit priests. It’s a lot to take in, and to be frank, quite wearying.  The play is also, in my opinion, at least half an hour too long (I mean how many times do we need Shagspeare to have a conversation with the Jesuit priest?)

Graney’s frenetic direction is a great match for Cain’s tone and intentions, and his design team (William Boles for sets, Janice Pytel for costumes, and Heather Gilbert for lighting) appropriately capture the time-straddling (loosely period, with a strong 21st century sensibility) flavor of the text. The cast is terrific, with Mark Grapey an appropriately confused and increasingly outraged Shagspeare, and the superb young actor Arturo Soria (whose recent performances in Hit the Wall and Oedipus del Rey have been notable) is team MVP, impressively juggling multiple roles from conceited, egocentric young actor in Shagspeare’s troupe to campy King James to devastated accused plotter.  Cain’s cerebral writing ultimately left me quite cold, when the cast’s dedication and energy should have left me warm, fuzzy, and tingly all over.

Seascape is at the Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., while Equivocation is a few blocks north, at the Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.  Both close on October 14. (Photo: scene from Equivocation)

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3 Responses to “The Smartest Men in the Room”

  1. Nick Sandys Says:

    Thank you for your honest and insightful responses to the plays above. Just to be clear, the reasons for casting minorities as the lizards in Seascape are conscious and partially as you have stated. Since the play has recently been reviewed by someone as “Albee’s children’s play,” I wanted the adult themes that are clearly there in the text concerning difference and bigotry (in 1975, the year of composition, suburban “white flight” is a major concern, not to mention racial tensions) to come to the fore and to be “uncomfortable,” as you suggest, for our “post-racial” audience. Apparently, the lizards make critics think the play is absurd and abstract (both terms Albee rejects), rather than a specific metaphor and cultural commentary. I realize this casting choice might be stereotypical if it were not fully conscious, but it is a far more powerful and ironic action in our own historical moment for a white character to call a diverse character a “bigot” as Charlie calls Leslie. As Leslie the lizard then says, “Being different is … interesting; there is nothing implicitly inferior or superior about it.” Highlighting the racial difference brings such discussion to the forefront and makes the theme central rather than peripheral. This is a dangerous play, and we should not feel comfortable about the confrontations that happen, whether about racial difference, the environment, or evolutionary theory.
    Again, thanks for coming and for your thoughts.
    Nick Sandys

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Nick, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you clarified the casting choice you made, and I must say it is a brave one. Kudos to initiating a more unsettling reading of the play for the audience. I am surprised though that most of the other reviews did not call out this artistic choice, when as you mention, it was pretty deliberate and intended to provoke discussion. I guess theater criticism in our “post-racial” world sometimes mutes rather than advances discussion about racial politics and identity.

  3. Nick Sandys Says:

    I agree, Francis. It has been quite astonishing to me that this issue has not been highlighted in reviews–which says something to me about how blind our current society is to the “implied” racism in the choice. It was meant to provoke discussion–clearly such statements need to be made more directly. In the meantime, I am glad that you brought it up (only on Abarbanel on WBEZ’s website found it thought-provoking–hmmm….).

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