By Mark Roberts
Directed by Ian Streicher
Produced by Fair Trade Productions
Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago
A Dark Comedy for the New South
Champaign County native Mark Roberts has made a name for himself by producing and writing for hit TV sit-coms Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men, as well as dark stage dramas like Parasite Drag (which his company is staging this fall). Now he has returned to Chicago to star in the regional premiere of his play New Country, which is billed as a comedy, but has some very dark aspects. There’s plenty of humor in this story about the inner circle of a young country star, and structurally, the early part of the play bears more than a passing resemblance to Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor, although its humor is never farcical. But the seriousness of the situations and suffering Roberts raises in his play isn’t given the focus it needs in its brief ninety minutes, resulting in a show that is a comedy in a similar sense to how Anton Chekhov used the word to describe his plays.
The evening before the wedding of young country-rock badboy Justin Spears (Michael Monroe Goodman), his publicist, Paul (Frank Nall), is in a Nashville hotel room, smoothing out his personal life as usual. At the moment, Paul’s biggest problems are Justin’s unseen fiancé, who is annoyed that he has gone missing and is ignoring her calls, and the irascible money-manager, Chuck (Will Clinger), who is furious that he will have to appear at the wedding alongside Justin’s obese sister. Paul and Chuck are also accosted by the flamboyant and overeager bellhop, Ollie (Colter O’Ryan Smith), who has a crush on Justin and a demo to pitch. When Justin does show up, wielding a semi-automatic he got as a gift and taking his usual delight in bullying people, he indulges Ollie, seemingly just to spite his managers. His actual motivation, and Ollie’s conniving nature, emerge only with time.
Also accompanying Justin is his drug-addled, borderline senile Uncle Jim (played by Roberts himself). The rough old coot is full of tales of his outrageous sexual escapades, some of which Justin forces out of him, to the lecher’s embarrassment. But Uncle Jim is in terrible condition, and uncharacteristically decides against attending the bachelor party after suffering a seizure. Once everyone else has left the suite, Jim contemplates shooting himself, but hasn’t the nerve to fire. While bemoaning his existence, he is interrupted by an unexpected guest: Justin’s scorned ex-girlfriend, Sharon (Sarah Lemp). Now a shady cop with an axe to grind, Sharon wants to confront Justin, and is willing to use Uncle Jim to get to him.
The biggest problem with the play is that it hinges on an extended dialogue between two people who have little reason to talk to each other. Or, rather, little reason to share as much as they do. Roberts clearly loves Uncle Jim as a character, and does an outstanding job performing as him. The old man possesses the sentimentality of a drunk, and although his emotional one-eighties are unpredictable, Roberts makes each of them wholly believable. Aware that he’s pathetic and hating himself all the more for it, Uncle Jim is doubtlessly grateful for any attention he can get. But Lemp’s Sharon is an alarming presence who barely bothers to veil her threats. Eventually, she warms up to Uncle Jim, and when allowing herself to loosen up, turns out to be quite clever, enjoyable company, albeit with a melancholic cloud clinging to her the whole time. But I didn’t believe she would warm up to him, and when she disclosed her history of cancer and Justin’s infidelities, and Jim revealed that he wrote Justin’s songs, I kept wondering why these strangers would share such things. Maybe they just want to vent about Justin that badly, which is understandable.
In a comedy, a bit of implausible dialogue is permissible. Though some of what Jim and Sharon share is heavy, much of it is ridiculous, and becomes more so as they attempt to outdo each other. Once the other characters return, the plot regains its manic energy, and Chuck and Justin’s mutually loathsome fighting regains prominence as the main source of humor. All the actors are very good at being nasty, but Clinger and Goodman stand out for vicious wretchedness, and Nall winds up being sympathetic by default. In contrast to the people, the design (sound: Robert Hornbostel, set: Kevin Hagan, lights: Frank Rose, costumes: Rachel Lambert, props: Mealah Heidenreich) is quite comfortable, and posters of past country greats such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash look down as a wistful reminder of better days.
The implied decline in what makes for a good image in a country star is yet another issue Roberts and director Ian Streicher raise and then don’t fully focus on, along with the Spears’ family’s personal drama and how it entangles those around them. However, the screwed-up Southern family business is a genre that has been well-established by such writers as Lillian Hellman and Horton Foote, and Mark Roberts’s New Country makes a fine addition to it. There are more than enough laughs and cringes to fill up the night. You’re likely to come away wishing New Country was longer.
Reviewed February 27, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see New Country’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the upstairs Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago.