Also see John's review of Boleros for the Disenchanted
The family seems to get by and to be loving and functional until Helen's hours are cut and Walter is unable to get the speaking gigs that used to supplement their income. In response, he pretends to get an office job so that Helen will ease up on her pressure for him to bring in some money. Meanwhile, his son Mikey (Jake Cohen), a lonely high-school sophomore, falls for Maria (Rachel Brosnahan), a pregnant classmate who's just moved to the area with her Aunt Chris (Martha Lavey), an office-products entrepreneur. The aunt sees a prodigy in Mikey and hires him to telemarket her office products, and he soon makes a bunch of money. He conceals this job from his parents even as his father pretends to have a job and, before long, reality forces a conflict between dreams and pragmatism.
The truth is that Walter lacks either the talent or the resources to achieve his dream, yet he simply can't give up and give in to the sacrifices and strictures of the working world, even when his family's well-being is at stake. He imagines a friendship with the high wire walker Philippe Petit (who walked a wire between the World Center's Twin Towers in 1974) and is inspired by Petit's ability to defy gravity and escape the restrictions of life on the ground. Ultimately, Walter is a tragic figure and, while Carpenter has a great deal of affection for him, she is uncompromising in her conclusion that this society has little room for someone who lives entirely in their dreams.
The characters are all believably drawn and played, as director Anna D. Shapiro again shows the skill with staging family dynamics she displayed in August: Osage County. The characters seem especially isolated and lonely. Walter is lost in the dreams his wife and son only partly share. Helen is alone in her role as the family's sole breadwinner, partially separated from her childlike husband by his fantasies and unable to connect very much with her mildly depressed and uncommunicative son. Maria, abandoned by her parents and living a nomadic life with Aunt Chris, is disconnected from most everyone, until she bonds with Mikey. Though the five live in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, we have the very real feeling they could be the only five people in the community.
Barford has a hang-dog, boyish charm that effectively establishes the character and source of the dramatic tension. Katz shows us Helen's understanding and appreciation of Walter's nature, and displays kindness and despair in equal measure. Jake Cohen's Mikey builds effectively, from a blank slate who reveals little, to optimism when he builds a friendship with Maria and enjoys success as a telemarketer. Rachel Brosnahan gives a very mannered performance, with Maria babbling incessantly in a nasal monotone that is frequently hard to understand (though what she's saying seems unimportant, as Maria shows little interest in whether her listeners are actually interested in what she has to say. Brosnahan has a heartbreaking scene in the second act, though, when Maria explains the circumstances of her pregnancy to Mikey. Her performance in that moment redeems her excesses earlier in the production. Lavey is a businesslike, intentionally opaque Aunt Chris while Tony Hernandez is charming and graceful as Walter's imaginary Petit.
Up is an intelligent and well-written play (in spite of a few contrivances in the second act), but the inevitability of its tragic destination and the dearth of few magical moments or characters you can like rather than pity makes it, for me, a tedious journey to a mournful though honest conclusion. I guess one could say the same about Death of a Salesman, another story about a man for whom society has no real use, but at least the Arthur Miller classic lets you know right in the title you're in a for a downer. With Up, one might be expecting a little more of an upper instead.
Up will be performed at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through August 23, 2009. For tickets visit www.steppenwolf.org, the box office, or call 312-335-1650.