Friday, July 06, 2018

Theater as Therapy, or Vice-Versa: At Goodman, Ellen Fairey's 'Support Group for Men' Entertains Without Quite Enlightening -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

Support Group for Men
by Ellen Fairey
directed by Kimberly Senior
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru July 29

If you're looking for a "good play" to see, Support Group for Men should fill the bill.

I didn't quite find it great, brilliant or--given the title--particularly therapeutic, but at the very least it was entertaining, and often quite funny, across 90 minutes. 

And to a point, it should appeal to almost anyone.

For it revolves around four men, two or three of whom easily into the theatergoing demographic, age-wise, and one who's younger and hipper. 

At least as cast at the Goodman, under the direction of Kimberly Senior, two of the four main characters--who hold a weekly support group get-together at which the play's action takes place--are white, one is black, one Latino.

At least one character is gay, or possibly pansexual, and LGBTQ issues are discussed, particularly by Roger (Keith Kupferer), an average Chicago Joe who "wants to understand" yet somehow has lived nearly 50 years without doing so.

The main quartet could generally be described as working class, with a middle-ager named Brian (Ryan Kitley) being "the oldest employee at the Apple store," yet the the meeting within the play takes place at his well-heeled Wrigleyville apartment (with Steve Jobs, Neil Young and Roger Ebert represented on the bookshelf).

Along with Delano (Anthony Irons) and Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega), Brian and Roger are forward-thinking enough to have been holding these weekly gab sessions--with each participant comfortable enough to openly share their current challenges, to an extent--yet they are compelled to insultingly co-opt Native America rituals and monikers (Sleeping Hawk, Floating Squirrel, etc.).

While this may all sound quite testosterone heavy, Support Group for Men is written by Ellen Fairey--who boasts impressive TV writing credits--and she clearly has fun in poking at men's odd inconsistencies.

Without going into further detail, the support group--which is humorous and fairly compelling in itself--is interrupted by a ruckus in the alley, which introduces a pair of Chicago cops (Eric Slater, Sadieh Rifai, the latter the only female cast member) and Alex (Jeff Kurysz, in a role reminiscent of one he played in Northlight's The Legend of Georgia McBride).

Kupferer, who was also in that Northlight production, has seemingly cornered the local market in playing (mostly) lovable schlubs, and he does good work here.

Support Group for Men moves well, and should satisfy, at least at face value.

But ultimately, it didn't much move or illuminate me, and it seems a bit contrived.

We're to believe that Kupferer's Roger demonstrates considerable growth in just a few hours, but for a guy like him to have been attending these therapeutic sharing sessions for (presumably) weeks on end would seem to already represent considerable personal development.

So I had a hard time seeing his initial (within the play) small-mindedness and/or his overnight enlightenment as particularly realistic.

And most of the other characters feel under-developed.

Irons as Delano has a nice line about not being comfortable with "being the black friend," but other than some ill-defined frustrations with his wife, it's not clear why he's there.

Kitley well-plays Brian as something of a smarmy charmer going through a mid-life crisis, but aside from Rivera-Vega's Kevin being an Apple Store colleague of his, the latter's reasons for attending the support group are also vague.

And maybe I'm missing the point, but "manly references" to Dirty Harry and Robert Plant feel like Fairey making cheap fun of manly references. 

But these critiques are more just rationale to explain why, despite liking Support Group for Men, I didn't love it.

As I stated up top, it's good, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing it.

But just a few days after I did, it's already fading from memory, and I imagine it will continue to do so.

I often find theater to be quite therapeutic, but despite some nice laughs and perhaps a couple of keen insights, Support Group for Men was really only fleetingly so.

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