While the impact of the Tea Party insurgency—the political face of the “libertarian mob,” in Mark Lilla’s characterization—on the 2010 Congressional elections is debatable, the results on November 3rd were undeniably sobering for the regnant Democratic majority. After it was all over, presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner, in an oddly tearful speech, mused on what he described as a “repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people.” “The people’s priorities will be our priorities,” he promised. “The people’s agenda will be our agenda. This is our Pledge to America, this is our pledge to you!”
However unedifying the spectacle of those midterms, the issues that surfaced obsessively throughout the campaign season—the nature of American identity, democracy, freedom; the specter of persistent economic decline; the corrosive resentment of nebulous elites—were also strikingly present in several productions on Chicago stages during the summer and fall. What exactly is the people’s agenda, and would we know it if we saw it? Kirk Lynn’s Cherrywood, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, each receiving exemplary stagings in widely disparate venues, offered the cold consolation of a theater that at once mourned, assumed, and projected the traditional dramatic function of constituting and reflecting a public in all its riven discontent.
Cherrywood is the name of an Austin, TX neighborhood, and Cherrywood originated as a performance by the Austin-based experimental troupe Rude Mechanicals. Its ensemble origins are visible in the structure of company co-founder Kirk Lynn’s script, which makes no assignment of lines to characters, progressing rather as a set of anonymous, riddling exchanges, a kind of choral poem with enigmatic stage directions set off to the side. The piece chronicles an epic house party that begins with the kind of spacey college-town rhythms familiar from the films of Richard Linklater before veering off into unexpected and politically fraught territory. Before long, the group of disaffected mostly twenty-somethings finds itself plunged into a parable of societal founding that might have appealed to Thomas Hobbes or the creators of Lost.
It’s hard to imagine a staging more in tune with Cherrywood’s unusual structure than that undertaken by David Cromer in the tiny environs of Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, tucked above a liquor store in a stretch of the Uptown neighborhood rife with storefront theaters. The Rude Mechs’ premiere production of the play had a cast of ten; Cromer fielded 49 actors. With the audience scattered about the fringes of the performance space, the result felt like an immersion in an actual post-college party, replete with awkwardness and ecstasies. The sheer mass of the performers onstage filled the room with an unsteady energy, saturated with sex, violence and elusive possibility.
A few themes structuring that possibility surface in Cherrywood’s initial moments. Talk at the party initially revolves around speculation and argument: What will the world look like in a hundred years? What music should we play? Why do all bands beginning with “A” suck, or do they? “That’s our problem,” declares someone early on:
There is no music that attracts crowds of diverse opinion.
It might be a rule: utopia has no anthem.
Thoughts about the neighbors, meanwhile, serve as a source of continuous anxiety; one of the housemates has left them an invitation in hopes, perversely, of keeping them away. The significance of the “neighbor” in society has been treated at length in the work of Levinas and, more recently, Zizek, who see the neighbor’s simultaneous proximity and foreignness as offering some insight into our ethics and politics, heavy with the potential for violence and love. Whether Lynn has such reflections in mind, and I strongly suspect he may, his play ties neighborliness to a founding moment of political violence: shortly after Cherrywood’s neighbors announce their arrival, shots ring out and the party takes a turn.
Once a reveler (played memorably in Chicago by the wild-haired Rich Cotovsky) has caught a bullet, the group begins a search for decision-making principles: who might be allowed to leave, how to search for the culprit, what to do about the gun. In these tense exchanges, Cromer’s ambitious gambit pays off handsomely, as shards of initiative and critique stutter out from the huddled crowd. The group arrives at a formally elegant, almost Rawlsian solution to the problem of the gun. Placing the weapon in one box and an equivalent weight of books in the other, one innovative guest claims to have devised “a check and its balance.” This epistemic sleight allows the party to resume; after a brief excursion outside, the guests return, each now bearing a box of his or her own.
Toward the end of the party, a messianic pizza delivery man arrives with a pizza box the contents of which match its opener’s wishes. In a similar fashion, guests open their own boxes to discover symbols of a changed politics: a donkey for mandatory voting, a stethoscope for universal healthcare (a recurrent concern in the play, as it likely is for its creators and performers). To some degree, this move might seem regressive, a retreat into political fantasy best suited to the Neverland environs of college towns:
You know almost with any of us,
if we had died in high school, we would be all potential.
We’re still all potential.
But Lynn’s point is subtler, driven home most pointedly in the piece’s longest monologue. It describes a riot in a big-box retailer set off by someone who commandeers a price-gun and uses it to reprice all the items (starting with the gun itself) in accord with their production costs. The business as it is ordinarily run, the repricer proclaims, is a charity whose beneficiaries are its executives and shareholders. Cherrywood posits renaming and reimagination as acts that could transform our bad present, the product of social arrangements camouflaged as brute facts, even as it retains a pointed skepticism about the coercion inherent in community formation. In its last lines, one party-goer remembers, as if it’s a revelation, a band beginning with “a” that doesn’t suck: “The Animals.” It’s a strangely pregnant moment, the glimmer of a demystified utopia the horizons of which remain up to us to determine.
The party scene in Lisa D’Amour’s new play Detroit, which opened Steppenwolf’s season and will move next season to Broadway, evokes memories of Cherrywood’s crowded milieu, though it could hardly be more different on its surface. Four suburbanites, two next-door-neighbor couples, indulge in a front-lawn Walpurgisnacht that slowly escalates until flames engulf one of the houses. How did Ben and Mary, the solidly middle-class owners of the torched home, reach this point of collapse? In detailing their decline, the play constitutes, as the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood noted, perhaps the most detailed dramatic response to 2008’s financial crisis and its continuing, dispiriting fallout.
D’Amour, a veteran of New York’s downtown performance scene who has the signal honor of receiving two commissions from Steppenwolf, has penned an elliptical and poignant fable. Here’s Ben, a former loan officer having recently joined the ranks of the involuntarily self-employed, painting his life’s picture with the brightest colors he can muster:
Ha ha I’m a deadbeat. No but really I got laid off my job at this bank, I was a loan officer and they like laid everybody off like literally I don’t know who is doing the work anymore and so they gave me this like halfway decent severance pay and also I could get unemployment so I am using it as an opportunity to set up my own business.
Prima facie, Detroit sports an almost too-familiar morality play structure: a respectable family finds itself seduced by the looser mores of the new neighbors, whether for bad (the nineteenth-century version) or good (the twentieth). Neighborliness here is more of a plot function, as opposed to the thematic concern it is in Kirk Lynn’s play. But like its title (stage directions set the play in a suburb outside a midsized American city, “not necessarily Detroit”), the play itself is deceptive. Kenny and Sharon, the drifters in recovery from various unspecified abuses—who have taken up residence next door to Ben and Mary—are strikingly, touchingly eager to adopt the bourgeois manners of their new neighbors. (Sharon, for instance, is the first—and only—customer for Ben’s investment-advising venture.) It’s soon apparent, though, that they have no hope of maintaining themselves in the middle-class lifestyle to which they aspire. Then again, neither do Ben and Mary.
Arthur Miller would have diagnosed these characters as suffering from their myriad illusions; D’Amour depicts people clinging to transparently false mantras. Ben is never going to finish developing his website; a casual beer is not a possibility for Kenny; Sharon and Mary’s budding friendship won’t transcend their class differences: all of these things are patently obvious to everyone on stage, no matter how strenuously they work collectively to deny them. But it’s not as though the truth is going to set anyone free, either. Detroit stutters to an awkward close, its final scene punctuated by a long monologue from Kenny’s newly arrived uncle, an oddly distanced resolution to this unusually intimate play. The play’s vision may simply be so bleak that any more direct ending would have seemed impossibly melodramatic in our cool, anti-tragic climate.
Along the way, though, the playwright inflects contemporary desperation with an unerring ear for absurdity. Exceptional performances bolstered its premiere, particularly a radiant Kate Arrington as Sharon. Exuberant and childlike, Arrington wielded vulnerability as a shield and potential weapon. At one moment, her character asks Ben whether he’s British because of his unusual word choices (he’s not). The daffy playfulness with which Arrington proffered the question and danced about her embarrassment spoke volumes about how her character had been pinioned by circumstances, her clear intelligence habitually camouflaged as a feminine survival strategy.
If Cherrywood reflects the paranoid, conspiratorial atmosphere of the Bush years, Detroit seems a fitting midterm report for the age of Obama, at a point where talk of hope has bleakly curdled. At a discussion following the opening performance, one patrician member of the silver-haired audience professed that he simply couldn’t identify with any of the characters. Check back in a few years, friend.
As an originary myth for the political environment chronicled by these two plays—an environment dominated by the spectacular exploitation of tribal identities and iconically hollow, rigorously controlled photo opportunities—a better moment could hardly be chosen than that depicted by the British playwright Peter Morgan in Frost/Nixon. A critical and popular hit in New York and London, the play premiered in Chicago under the auspices of the mid-sized TimeLine Theatre Company. In the last couple of years, TimeLine has also scored the premieres of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention, and staged a memorable revival of Miller’s All My Sons. The phenomenal production it mounted of Frost/Nixon secures its status as one of the city’s, if not the country’s, top venues—not bad for a thirteen-year-old company.
Frost/Nixon consists of the simplest of premises: we see the negotiations behind the famous 1977 series of television interviews, the first to be given by the disgraced ex-President, and then we see snippets of the interviews themselves. I will admit to some skepticism about the inherent interest of this 34-year-old media event. But Morgan has chosen his subject with extraordinary insight; the play is a remarkably skillful dissection of the confluence between media and political power in the 1970s and, by extension, today.
Telegenic and glib, Frost epitomized the shift in television journalism from the values cultivated in print newsrooms to those of celebrity culture. Rather than offering the easy critique of such a shift, though, Frost/Nixon makes the case that Frost had precisely the right background for understanding his shifty interlocutor. For all his aspirations to mandarin status, Nixon’s rise to power was bolstered by an exquisite sensitivity to mass psychology; dog-whistle politics put him in the White House. Arguably, our 37th president was a more formidable actor than Ronald Reagan, so it is no accident that a celebrity interviewer proved to be his ablest adversary.
Stepping into the formidable shoes of Frank Langella, Terry Hamilton played Nixon in Chicago, offering the performance of his quite distinguished career. Capitalizing on the former president’s excruciating body language, Hamilton was able to fashion a portrait of a man trapped by his own masterful strategizing. In one of the script’s few lapses, Morgan gives us an ill-advised confessional moment in which Nixon declares to an aide that he’s done covering up. Hamilton, in effect, neutralizes that scene; even after he’s made his pivotal, apparently uncontrolled, admission to Frost—“When the President does it, it’s not illegal!”—the actor’s relentless evasions maintain the house-of-mirrors effect of the Nixonian psyche, forestalling any definitive ascription of intent. He should play Bob Dylan.
For his part, Andrew Carter made a fine Frost, making plain the determination behind the blow-dried poise. Carter and Hamilton’s interview scenes, abetted by Mike Tutaj’s expert video projections, positioned us, as observers, in a transitional space between theater audience and viewers at home. Suspended between activity and passivity, a collective composed of isolated individuals, we were given a terrible, delectable glimpse at the birth of the politics of resentment whose echoes, like background radiation, still saturate our polity today. At the same time Frost/Nixon, like Detroit and Cherrywood, offered up a potential alternative in the fragile, intimate collective of performers and audience that it created all over again each night of its brief run. Hard as the popular will may be to decipher, the complex conversations enabled by this trio of artworks provides a promising starting-point for its renewed expression.