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The Crowd You're In With
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Graceland and Richard's reviews of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Crowd You're In With
Kiff Vanden Heuvel, Stephanie Childers and Coburn Goss
If there's a subject regarding the "right to choose" that's even more taboo than abortion, it may be the right of married couples to choose not to conceive. That's the premise of this new play by Rebecca Gilman, which like her Dollhouse of a few years ago, takes a critical look at the lifestyles and world views of well-educated and upscale youngish professionals on the north side of Chicago. There, in the backyard of a vintage two-flat, Jasper and Melinda, a childless married couple in their mid-30s, are preparing a 4th of July barbecue for best friends Dan and Melinda, who are expecting their first baby in a few months. Jasper and Melinda have been trying to conceive for the past five months and are getting a little anxious over their lack of results so far. When they're joined by their landlord/neighbors Tom and Karen, a 60-year old couple who have never been parents, Jasper and Melinda share their intentions with the couple and are surprised by their reaction.

After hearing of Jasper and Melinda's goal to have a baby, the landlords not so subtly suggest the younger couple should not renew their lease. Tom and Karen, we learn, just don't want to live around kids. That position, together with a few volatile statements by the liberal and highly opinionated Karen - like telling prospective parents Dan and Windsong "the world's probably going to end in your baby's lifetime" - sets off fireworks that shoot off in the direction of all in attendance well before dusk. Tom and Karen excuse themselves early but their comments spark some friction between the younger couples as well, some of which has to do with the relative merits of Bob Dylan. (The play's title is a lyric from Dylan's "Positively 4th Street.")

Tom and Karen's choice not to raise kids, we learn, is entirely voluntary not due to infertility or health problems. They wanted other things and more time with each other. In a later conversation with Jasper, they explain how their choice has been uncomfortable for many of the people they know and that it's kept them from having many close friends. These later exchanges in the 80-minute one act play performed in real time are insightful and touching, especially as Gilman has Jasper admit to some doubts about his own interest in parenting. He's frightened by the conformity surrounding the parenting practices of "the crowd" he and Melinda are in with getting all the right accessories, toys and clothing, putting them in the best schools - and he also fears losing his own identity and ability to pursue his goals in the process. In fairness, Gilman makes a pretty good case for procreation as well when Melinda tells Jasper that giving birth to their child would be like creating another one of the man she loves. "Wanting another one of me," he muses, and tells his wife that's the best thing anyone has ever said to him.

Gilman's thesis that couples may decide to have children because it's expected of them, rather than a deliberate, thoughtful choice - is one well worth discussing. The last 30 minutes or so are quite moving, but the first 50 seem a bit contrived. The cast and director Wendy C. Goldberg aren't able to make these earlier moments seem spontaneous and natural, and the action moves too quickly from setup and establishment of the Chicago yuppie milieu into an ideological discussion of ideas.

The characters appear to have started out as archetypes rather than real people. For example, Karen and Tom (Linda Gehringer and Rob Riley) are potentially fascinating and complex, but in the early scenes they're drawn too broadly. Karen's provocative outbursts and insults like telling schlubby Dan he dresses like a kid for wearing a baggy t-shirt and shorts just seem improbable, as Karen has not been established yet as eccentric or irascible enough to say those things. Tom is mostly quiet and almost portrayed as having early-stage Alzheimer's. Dan (Kiff Vanden Heuvel) is a rock music critic for the Chicago Tribune who feels his work is obsolete the minute it's printed and he's the sort of man-boy character Vince Vaughn or Seth Rogen play in movies. Windsong (Stephanie Childers), who had worked mostly in jobs for non-profit organizations before quitting to become a mommy, is part tough and part vulnerable, but we don't get a good sense of her backstory.

Backstory is even more of a void with the central couple of Jasper and Melinda. Though sensitively played by Coburn Goss and Janelle Snow in the last third of the play, there's not enough to bring them beyond "generic couple trying to have kids." There's also a seventh character, Dwight, a single guy who works as a waiter and is in Jasper and Dan's garage band. Sean Cooper plays him as a stereotypical stoner, and the character is unnecessary except that he gets to deliver a great monologue bemoaning the self-centeredness of parents taking their kids to non-kid friendly restaurants. The audience howled in recognition at this speech.

The action is set against a most realistic set of the backstairs and porches of the two-flat, designed by Kevin Depinet. Gilman's challenge is to make her dialogue and characters as realistic as that set. If she can do that with future iterations of this play, she can make it into a solid, thoughtful comedy-drama. As is it now, it's more debate than drama.

The Crowd You're In With will be performed Tuesdays Sundays through June 21st at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. For tickets, visit the box office, www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson



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