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Chicago by John Olson

The Well-Appointed Room
World Premiere
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Well-Appointed Room
Josh Charles, Kate Arrington
and Tracy Letts

In Richard Greenberg's new play directed by Steppenwolf's Terry Kinney, the character Mark tells the audience that everyone has a period in their life that fully expresses them presumably when they're best able to live the sorts of lives they would most like to live, have their ideas heard and appreciated, and find support in kindred spirits. The theater season of 2005-06 might be Greenberg's, with world premieres in New York of A Naked Girl on the Appian Way on Broadway, The House in Town at Lincoln Center, the highly anticipated Broadway revival of Three Days of Rain starring Julia Roberts and two other premieres at regional theaters: Bal Masque at D.C.'s Theater J, as well this production at Steppenwolf.

Though the year began with disappointing reviews for Naked Girl, The Well-Appointed Room will likely be much better received. It's a gentle, thoughtful, and philosophical comedy-drama in which Greenberg ponders a new question how are we to live our lives once we've come to the realization that our futures hold no guarantee of happiness or security? The Well-Appointed Room is less explosive than Take Me Out, less funny than The Violet Hour, more optimistic than Three Days of Rain and, happily or not, less laden with lengthy monologues than any of the above; but it contains its own distinctive mix of Greenberg's trademark heart, humor and philosophy.

His story concerns two couples who consecutively occupy the same Manhattan apartment one before 9/11 and the other shortly after and how they try to cope with the uncertainty of the future. In the thirty-minute first act entitled "Nostalgia," The successful playwright Stewart (Tracy Letts) is on the top of the world, happily preparing brunch for himself and his wife on a glorious Sunday morning. His productions make money; he's respected enough to sit on juries of awards committees and would seem to be experiencing the sort of defining time of his life Mark will describe later in the play. By the end of the act, his life will be shattered - as suddenly, completely and unexpectedly as was our sense of national security after 9/11 - but not before his wife Natalie (Amy Morton) accuses him of altering the reality of his life history through his semi-autobiographical plays. He rebuts the contention, contending his protagonists are not intended to represent himself, just to provide an outlet to express some of his ideas. He denies he's living in the past, as "nostalgia is just the longing for a time you know you can survive."

Another way of coping with anxiety over survival - the opposite of living in the past because of its certain outcome is to create a future with the desired outcomes and live in that fantasy, a behavior "Prolepsis," the title of act two. The act begins with two thirtyish Manhattan professionals meeting - as cutely as has ever been done in romantic comedies - while waiting for a bus in the rain. The two (Josh Charles as Mark and Kate Arrington as Gretchen) marry, and Mark enjoys enough success to become "medium rich" - enough to afford to buy the condo recently vacated by Stewart and Natalie. Gretchen becomes pregnant, and after another chance meeting in the rain with a stranger played by Letts, becomes immobilized with anxiety that the baby she is carrying may not enjoy the perfect life she and Mark are visualizing for the child. Her fears that the cruelty and uncertainty of the world may bring him a painful existence cause her to create and live in a fantasy future for their family one in which everyone is happy, healthy and successful.

Through Mark, Greenberg asks us not to think of this as a 9/11 play ("there's been so much bad writing to come out of it," Mark explains. "Why would I want to add to that?") More precisely, he may mean that this is not an effort to fully describe the experience of New Yorkers after the tragedy. Still, the terrorist attacks clearly set up the theme as well as briefly figuring in the narrative of the play. The theme can be read as either a meditation on the choices one makes personally for coping with anxiety over the future, or on the choices we make as a nation while living with the new insecurity caused by terrorist activities against the west.

As this is a play of ideas more than characters, it offers little opportunity for bravura performances, but the cast under Kinney's direction serves Greenberg's ideas ably. Letts' characters, particularly the stranger Mitchell of act two are the most colorful, and Letts knows exactly how far to push them while remaining short of grandstanding. Josh Charles is believably kind and sensitive as a husband who on paper is really too good to be true. Amy Morton and Kate Arrington convey the wives' anger and anxiety respectively quite successfully, and Morton has the opportunity to display her versatility by playing a much older character in the second act.

The production is enhanced by the realistic set of Robert Brill (Tony-nominated for Assassins) which brings an authentic mid-century design to the apartment, and magically flies away to suggest other locations, supplemented by dreamy projections of the New York skyline designed by Sage Marie Carter.

The Well-Appointed Room is unabashedly self-referential. Like Three Days of Rain, the action occurs in the same apartment at different points in time and involves different characters. Indeed, rain causes the significant events of act two to happen. Reflection on the future the theme of The Violet Hour - is again significant in this play, and at one point The Well-Appointed Room's characters comment on the purplish sunset over the New York skyline, as do the characters of The Violet Hour. Mark, the young husband and narrator of act two, speaks directly to the audience la Mason Marzac of Take Me Out, and, like Marzac, is not only the soul of the play but is a business manager as well. Greenberg may be commenting on his own fear of living in the past glories of his prolific and mostly well-received output. He may be able to rest fears of the future a bit more easily though, as The Well-Appointed Room, though the first act could be more engaging and entertaining, is likely to be well received and to further his critical and popular esteem.

The Well-Appointed Room runs until March 12, 2006. Curtain times are Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m., Wednesday matinees on February 22, March 1 and 8 at 2:00 p.m. There will be no Sunday evening performances February 26, March 5 and 12. Free post-show discussions will be offered daily. Tickets, $20-$60, can be ordered by visiting www.steppenwolf.org or calling 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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