Directed by Rick Snyder
Starring Jordan Brown, Jessica Honor Carleton & Brennan Roche
Produced by Profiles Theatre—Main Stage
This deliciously mean-spirited dramedy is still boldly unapologetic.
The wealthy, wanton and debauched courtly ‘rake’ was a common enough convention in the plays of England’s Restoration. Dramatists William Wycherley, George Etherege and Sir John Vanbrugh—recently liberated from the oppressively bourgeois Puritanism of the Commonwealth—each gave us richly dark portraitures of the libertine aristocrat, consumed in the wiles of seduction, betrayal and sexual conquest. Seducing defenseless virgin heiresses was a favorite courtly pastime, and they dismissed with high-born rigor all moral circumscriptions as so very ‘middle class.’
‘Bad boy’ Neil LaBute’s play In the Company of Men—newly revised in a relentless and gutsy production at Profiles Theater under director Rick Snyder—recasts the courtly rakes of yesteryear as the droves of button-up’ed, white-collar yuppie shit-heads currently lubricating the engine of America’s FIRE economy. Chad (Jordan Brown) and Howard (Brenneche Roche), friends since they were wee tikes, have together climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder only to arrive as disgruntled, paranoid, and sexually frustrated middle management. What’s missing, of course, is their long lost sense of aristocratic privilege. Of being a thing that spits in the face of middle-class mores and bridled domesticity and feels compelled to declare its sense of god-like entitlement through wanton acts of cruelty.
Thus Chad and Howard’s plan—hatched while taking leaks in the john—to just for kicks string along a deaf girl (Jessica Honor Carleton) working in the secretarial ‘underpool’ is more than a strictly gendered conflict. Chad especially, as the irredeemably crueler of the two, is more than just a bad ‘man,’ and the threat he poses is indirectly aimed at a broader society which never recognized his self-professed greatness or his lordly abilities. So in the last analysis, why does Chad do it? What compels him to betray the devoted girlfriend he swore moved out months ago, or the innocent women who fell in love with him, or the best buddy he’s trusted all his life? I suspect it’s because if the rake can’t have your love, he’ll at least settle for your envy.
And I suppose this subtle intrigue of the rake is what ultimately makes Snyder’s production so successful—the way it stays open to Chad’s moral dissolutions as something alluringly (even seductively) titillating. And Jordan Brown’s cleanly disinterested performance perfectly captures Chad’s ruthless ambition to win. Brown forbids Chad from having even a fleeting moment of guilt or a spare second to reconsider his actions. And in denying Chad a certain degree of self-awareness, Brown invites all our vile and futile hatred as evidence of Chad’s own exemplary dispensation. Like a lone wolf who thinks itself brave for having gnawed off its paw to get loose from a trap, Brown’s Chad is never for one moment willing to admit what it is that he’s lost. But for his blindness, he is all the stronger to us. And as a bit of gratuitous nudity, Chad’s naked body strewn over Christine in bed suggests something of an unseemly exhibitionist, inviting the keen stares of moral disapproval mixed with erotic displeasure, refusing to hide his shame.
And as an effective counterweight, Jessica Honor Carleton gives a pitch-perfect performance as the deaf Christine. In Christine’s strange and socially awkward sense of humor and in the way her shoulders sit perpetually forward in an ungainly slump, Carleton reveals a woman already willing to play the fool if only someone would ask. Thus Christine’s problem isn’t that she doesn’t wish to be the butt of jokes—only that she’d prefer to be in on it. And one does not have to go so far as to ‘blame’ Christine for Chad’s and Howard’s actions in order to realize that her efforts to deflect cruelty by playing defenseless only served to attract predators. One might add blindness, I suppose, to the list of Christine’s limitations. And as Chad’s friend Howard, the one who forsakes elitism for the chance to actually fall in love, Brennan Roche succeeds in reflecting the audience’s own sense of rage-filled frustrations while remaining still charming.
But maybe the most clever part of Snyder’s well-paced production was Thad Hallstein’s set design which placed the men’s restroom—Chad and Howard’s inner sanctuary—slightly elevated up and above the remaining action. The way it thus elevated every shit, piss and fart these two yahoos had up on a pedestal. Even when fulfilling their basest biological obligations, Chad and Howard see themselves as set apart. Set above. Even set beyond reproach.
But if the consciously gray moral tones of Snyder’s production strike us as being overly conciliatory toward its anti-heroes, we should realize that it offers us something decidedly more interesting than its sharp moral disapproval. By opening us up to the subtle seductions of the rakish mindset, In the Company of Men dislodges us from the place where moral judgements feel simply automatic. Rather, we are afforded the opportunity to see our own objections for what they are: the strident disapproval of a middle-class railing against its self-proclaimed ‘betters.’
In the end, casting a stone against the cruelty in LaBute’s play may be the right thing to do. But we at least owe ourselves the duty of understanding why.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Thursday, May 16th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
In the Company of Men runs until June 30th, 2013. Profiles Theatre is located at 4139 N. Broadway. For tickets call (773) 549-1815. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/in-the-company-of-men/6065/.