Monday, July 10, 2006
The Unmentionables (The SOB Review) - Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, IL
**** (out of ****)
Once again exposing the wide gap between how many Americans prefer to perceive themselves versus their actions, playwright Bruce Norris' brilliance is weaved throughout his compelling tale very much worth mentioning in The Unmentionables, which enjoyed its world premiere Sunday evening at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Like so much of Norris' previous work, things are never exactly what they seem. His very humorous, explosive play forces the audience to look in the mirror he so deftly holds up to them, with a dare to closely look at themselves, confront prejudices and ponder how they'd behave in the midst of panic or crisis. Even as the booming off-stage voice instructs the audience to silence their cell phones, a menacing, cocky young man named Etienne (Jon Hill, pictured above left) saunters down the aisle looking as if he might not belong before finally calling out to the audience that they should not bother staying for this show. Of course, it's all a ruse, but it's clearly designed to set the stage for the play and challenge some pre-conceived notions about race and appearance even before the performance begins.
With an unnamed bleak Western African "democracy" as a backdrop, The Unmentionables draws a dubious distinction between altruistic Americans and those fellow countrymen who exploit and plunder. The play unfolds in the well-guarded, ostentatious home of ethically-challenged American businessman Don (Rick Snyder) and his Mensa-member wife Nancy (Amy Morton), who open their home to a couple of other Americans, the very "familiar" Jane (Shannon Cochran, pictured above right) and her Christian missionary fiancé Dave (Lea Coco) when the former takes ill. They're visited by The Doctor (Kenn E. Head) -- who treats Janes while questioning her "made-up" affliction along with Dave's virginity -- and local political hack Aunt Mimi (Ora Jones), who's investigating allegations made with respect to Etienne. With a blind eye to her husband's local dealings, Nancy wonders aloud why Americans aren't being treated better in the aftermath of 9/11.
When Dave goes missing in the middle of the night, fears for his relative safety are expertly exploited by Aunt Mimi for purposes of questioning Etienne. Straddling the line between complicity and compassion, Jane is forced to make an instantaneous decision for answers, defying what she believes are her defining characteristics. The many twists are expertly helmed by Anna D. Shapiro, particularly in the layered dialogue that exposes the sanctimonious frauds Norris believes all too many Americans are.
The cast is absolutely superb and includes: Cochran channeling her best Laurie Metcalf (Metcalf was originally slated for the role of Jane); Coco providing Dave with an all-too believable conviction as the Bible-thumping missionary with a secret; Snyder giving a very nuanced performance as Don, demonstrating that even shady business people are capable of questioning what they've done do get what they have; Jones very capably portraying the politico with a bankrupt view of democratic rule; Head convincingly imbuing his Doctor with a dash of Pontius Pilate when he essentially washes his hands clean of the decisions made by the Americans over Dave's absence; and Morton showing just how incredibly versatile and funny she can be with her boozy, sex-deprived wife who simply can't keep quiet (think of the airline passenger from hell who just won't shut up) -- this is the best performance I've seen from her since she portayed Nurse Ratched on Broadway in Steppenwolf's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest back in 2001.
There may be some who think Norris has overreached in his portrayal of hypocritical Americans. But on a world stage where that view is probably more the rule than the exception, Norris forces his audience to face the mirror The Unmentionables provides -- and if audience members are a bit discomfitted by what they see, it's all the more reason why they should to take a close look through this excellent play.
(As a point of full disclosure, I proudly sit on Steppenwolf's Auxiliary Council Board of Governors.)
This Is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
Click here for tickets.