Produced by Windy City Playhouse
A Very 90s Sex Comedy
The new Windy City Playhouse, now in the third show of its inaugural season, has drawn attention to itself for its swanky, comfortable, nightclub atmosphere. With its swiveling armchairs, end tables for drinks, and handsome lobby, the casual setting was a welcome, if a bit incongruent, location for its first two dramas: the seriocomic End Times, about an evangelical mother who obsesses over the rapture while her goth daughter dates a Jewish outcast, and Stickfly, the tragedy of a wealthy African-American family’s patriarch. Their current production, Peter Ackerman’s 1999 Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, recently adapted into a miniseries on DirecTV, is a fluffy, sexy, sitcom-level examination of relationships among ridiculous, dysfunctional New Yorkers. Light-hearted entertainment for sure, it could work well for a date-night or girls’ night out in a venue where the atmosphere sets the tone of the show.
The play involves three couples, each loosely connected to each other. We meet the first, Nancy and Ben (Emily Tate and Peter Meadows) just as she climaxes while screaming “do me, you hook-nosed Jew,” much to Ben’s dismay. She is humiliated and confused by the implications this has about her hidden feelings, and during the subsequent fight, two things emerge: one is that due to an implausible and possibly willful misunderstanding of Ben’s argument, Nancy suspects he is gay, and leaves to seek solace from her friend. The other is that Nancy expresses fear that Ben’s Jewishness gives him access to a world she is jealous of and excluded from, and therefore will cause him to become dissatisfied with her, which makes her feel defensive. In spite of her clearly saying this in the first scene, the whole second part of the play is devoted to her discovery of this motivation, but first we see Nancy’s friend Grace’s problems.
Grace (Patrese McClain) is a painter and disillusioned, currently unemployed academic (is there any other kind?) She’s currently seeing a therapist, and for the past five days, has been hooking up with his brother, Gene (Shane Kenyon). Gene is a hitman, which Grace finds thrilling in comparison to the extended adolescence she observed in male grad students, and she is enamored by his uncouth, poorly spoken ways. That’s unfortunate, though, because Gene is attracted to her for her intellect, and would rather listen to her talk about art theory than have sex with her. He’s even called “Clean Gene” because of his meticulous avoidance of gore or undue suffering while killing people, and hopes to quit the business altogether. (No, his profession is not treated seriously by the script or the production.) When Nancy bursts in with all her worries, Grace suggests calling her therapist, Gene’s brother, Mark (Chris Sheard). Gene is embarrassed by that because Mark has a thing for much older men, and indeed, is in bed with one right as his phone rings. Not wanting to miss such a fascinating client (I guess?), Mark enlists his lover, the cantankerous old Jew Donald Abramson (Robert Spencer) in a conference call with the other couples, intending to work out Ben and Nancy’s troubles.
So far as I can tell, acclaimed director William Brown’s main contribution to this production was the incredibly elaborate blocking in Grace and Gene’s scene. They constantly weave around each other and over the bed from the moment Grace enters, intent on seduction. Scenic designer Kevin Depinet also made their bedroom the only one on the main floor; those of the other two couples are on platforms high over most audience members’ heads. The problem is that the house as currently arranged has some bad sightlines. Chairs on the main floor go back four rows, which could present a problem since Grace’s room is the location of so much action. After intermission, when there are characters in all three bedrooms, this improves a lot, since audience members can focus their attention on the room they can see most easily, and the people sitting in front will likely swivel their chairs in a different direction, but the floor seats may not be optimal.
Ackerman wrote his characters pretty simply in this, his first play. Brown gives them quirks like Grace constantly playing with her fan, and Mark making a sweeping gesture whenever he is trying to be incisive. It’s an appropriate stylistic choice for comedy, and the characters are amusing when we first meet them. Shane Kenyon’s Gene is awkwardly insecure and needy, with occasional outbursts of fraternal protectiveness for who he perceives as the little guy. Patrese McClain’s Grace is a familiar figure: the mature overthinker trying to lose herself in momentary fun the world will not allow her to have. As the therapist Mark, Chris Sheard seems the perfect boyfriend—playful, patient, compassionate, content to lounge in nothing but his underwear, and in awe of Robert Spencer’s Mr. Abramson, who appears to be amazed at his luck. But Act II drags, as Ackerman overuses the joke of Mark repeating everything he hears on the phone to his partner, and the characters circle around a conclusion I thought they had reached in the first scene, along with a predictable confrontation over the instigating hook-nosed Jew comment that Gene and Grace’s problem was a lengthy distraction from.
I would be remiss not to mention that despite my many issues with the script, I did laugh several times, and lots of other people in the room giggled even more (and I don’t think it was the forced laughter often heard on opening nights). Not everyone likes discussions of anti-Semitism mixed with their fluff, though (the play itself acknowledges a generational divide on this subject), and Ackerman, who was young when he wrote this, treated Mr. Abramson rather condescendingly. There’s also something quite nineties about how the characters talk about Mark like his mere existence is a novelty, and expect him to be some sort of empath. This humor won’t please everyone. Still, Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight is silly, sexy fun with a veneer of yuppie relationship drama that I think works as entertainment for a sizable number of people. The Windy City Playhouse is likely experimenting with what gets a strong response, and continues to draw leading and up-and-coming talent to its hospitable venue.
Reviewed August 16, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W Irving Park, Chicago. Tickets are $20-60; to order, call 773-891-8985 or visit windycityplayhouse.com. Productions are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm (except Sept 13, at 3:00 pm) through October 4. Running time is two hours with one intermission.