Wednesday, September 19, 2007

PLAY: "Have You Seen Steve Steven?"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Remember that time when you were a kid, and you thought you knew better than your parents? Or that other time, when you got older and you realized that, for all your rebellion, you were becoming your parents? Or that last time, when you were really old, and you didn't remember either of these times? Anne Marie Healy's new play, Have You Seen Steve Steven? is appropriately funny as it dredges through the truths of the first two things, reflected in a homey Midwest McFamily, the culturally klutzy (yet obsessive) Clarksons. But it's the third thing that at last turns the work into a frightening satire, with an affectingly disaffecting series of onstage dismantlings of both family and memory, those tenuous connections to actual life.

Unlike other modern satirists like George Saunders, Ms. Healy grounds her work in the laughable concerns of the Clarksons as they prepare for their old friends, the Dudleys. But wait! They're out of Shiraz, there's a bean dip stain--pimento!--on the sofa, and neither Mary (who's been boastfully preparing a "hot dish" to go with the Ritz Bitz) nor Bill (who's been basking in the glow of his SONY 9877 projector system) has showered yet. If anything, things are too normal, which leads us, along with the daughter, Kathleen, to suspect (in that Eerie, Indiana sort of way) the intentions of the soft-spoken, neon-orange-hatted, bear of a neighbor that is Hank Mountain. (Rightfully so, but still...)

Our concerns are whisked away, however, by the speedy and efficient pace of Healy's script, and Anne Kauffman's disconcertingly cheery direction (similar to that in The Thugs). Our concerns are set aside by the arrival of Jane and Dudley, who come across as a slightly more in-the-know (i.e., pretentious) version of Mary and Frank. In other words, they're the sort of people who "order" an exchange student so as to seem concerned, but can't pronounce her name (Anlor), nor care to learn it. Tommy, their son, doesn't buy into their consumerism, for which he is rewarded with the sobriquet "Mister Ex-Pat," nor is he especially interested in reliving old times with Kathleen, except for mentioning their old imaginary dog, Steve Steven.

The play operates at first as a farce, with pratfalls from Frank as he tries to cover up the bean-dip stain and sight gags from a parade of personality-stealing puffy coats. But between the creepy neighbors (Hank is joined later by a sprightly old maid, Vera) and Tommy's gloomy realism, the show keeps transforming into something more sinister. The smiles we took to be genuine are quickly exposed as screw-on, and though there's love between the parents, it's one of deadening comfort, not livening passion. At first, the mispronunciation of Anlor's name (Rumbone, Rambone, Randor, Ranflor, ultimately the commercially captivating Rambo) is amusing, but as the night goes on, it becomes more like a sick joke on everyone involved.

As for Have You Seen Steve Steven? itself, Kaufmann has nailed the mood, Healy has caught the rhythms, and the cast has vibrantly brought it all to life. There's certainly room for the quirky discomfort to be repetitious, and the play's conclusion is so extremely--almost militarily--staged that it's hard to follow ("NETWORK IS PANINI!"), but the production itself is so crisp, so genuinely warm, that we follow these families into the hell of growing up (as Thomas puts it, right before breaking down, "Yeah. I'm. Totally taking this like a man..."). By no means is Steve Steven an easy play (I'm not sure I understand it all), but it is enjoyable, especially in the quiet, honest and awkward moments between the performers--moments where, for a second, it looks like they're just about to really connect, only to just as suddenly dismiss the impulse with a well placed Midwestern "wull." The whole cast is exceptional, but Alissa Ford and Tom Riis Farrel (Mary and Frank) pivot between needs particularly well, and Matthew Maher (Hank) is easily one of the year's most memorable villains.

The one gripe I will take up with the play is that it's hard to take Anlor seriously, and her role in the play's conclusion confuses more than it coheres. It's not the actress's fault--Jocelyn Kuritsky is alarmingly funny--but given that there are already two strangers at the dinner party, and that the play is mostly an attack on the walled-in American lifestyle, there just isn't any need for another Other.

What there is room for (as fresh young plays like God's Ear, The Thugs, and Dead City have demonstrated) is for discomforting comedy, for we are now, more than ever, living in a world where our laughter comes veiled in the shadow of our collective nervousness.

No comments: