BWW Review: The Guys Are Alright: SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN at Contemporary American Theater Festival
If you're taking in more than one of the shows at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, and you can arrange to see Ellen Fairey's Support Group for Men last, you should do so. It will send you away happy. There is nothing profound or challenging in this show: just a well-crafted and very funny comedy of manners, specifically the manners of the male of Species Homo Americanus, youthful to mid-life, as observed in a middle-class Chicago habitat.
On Thursday evenings, four specimens of the species gather in the apartment of one of them, Brian (Chris Thorn), to engage in rituals and bear witness to each other's testimonies. The rituals center around a faux-Native American "talking stick" (pictured above), which entitles its holder to the floor. When the holder announces his intent to speak, the others respond "We are here to listen." And at the conclusion of the testimony, the hearers respond with a "slap/clap/chest thump/grunt" signifying that the speaker has been heard. (Trust me, you'll see this several times in the course of the show, and it will keep cracking you up.) Yet for all the ceremony surrounding the testimonies, they tend, by design, to be the least important or interesting parts of the show. Most of the real business of the gathering happens in those moments between - and in dealing with what bubbles up from the alleyway below.
The Chicago neighborhood where all this happens is filled with bars, hence with people being raucous and obnoxious, people having sex, people spray-painting the walls - and in various ways being so loud the members of the group find themselves leaning out the window to trade insults and (occasionally) drop wine and even vegetables on them. But the alley can send things back up. It sends Alex (Rolando Chusan), a cross-dresser with a truly horrible red wig and a concussion, fleeing violence and police attention below. And it sends two cops (Julia Coffey and Tom Coiner) who come to investigate and then don't exactly leave, at least not in a conclusive way. In the midst of all this, Brian and his compatriots Roger (Scott Aiello), Delano (Ken Robinson), and Kevin (Juan Arturo) get on each other's cases, provide feedback, help each other out with their respective lives - and (once some rare super-powerful Mexican weed is introduced into the proceedings) go on an epic trip. (The stage effects accompanying that trip, care of scenic and projection designer David Barber, are on beyond magnificent, a trip in themselves.)
In a coda on a Thursday evening four months later, we are shown how everyone's life has moved on, influenced in one way or another by that somewhat pivotal night, and mostly for the better. The audience will have seen from the first that for all the bluff talk and the hijinks, these guys really do look out for each other. Fairey has commented that some audience-members are perturbed that the portraits of the men are positive, "feel[ing] like men don't deserve a warm-hearted story." And indeed, anyone looking for a negative take on these characters is simply going to be disappointed. (They may find A Welcome Guest, also playing at the Festival, a pretty thorough takedown of patriarchal attitudes, more to their liking.)
My take is that the disappointment behind that criticism is more a matter of feeling that Fairey, a female playwright, has abandoned her post at a time when women are doing so much work to interrogate the ways and roles of men, particularly (as here) straight, cis-gender men, who have always had playwrights willing to reinforce their sense of self-worth, whether earned or not. I'm thinking of Neil Simon, for example, and The Odd Couple, a play that bears some resemblances to this one - although I'd argue that the contrasts in attitude between that play and Support Group outweigh the similarities. The biggest contrast may be the characters' openness here to hold their own views up to scrutiny when Alex turns up with his dress and his wig. Every member of the group ends up trying the wig on, and not in a derisive way. Roger, in particular, probably the grouchiest of the group, who is played here with a beard, starts admiring himself in the mirror, and does not take the wig off for a while. And even the character one would consider least likely to deviate from the old macho ways, Officer Nowak, whose initial mind-set seems, let us say, old-school, displays some of the same kind of openness as the others do before all is said and done. Though it may pain some theatergoers to see a female playwright bestowing approval on a considerable number of heterosexual male characters, at least these characters do something to earn it.
This is definitely the feelgood play of this year's Festival. The laughs are nearly constant, everyone is affirmed, frequently with a "slap/clap/chest thump/grunt," and there are happy endings for all, including the audience. So see it last.
Support Group for Men, by Ellen Fairey, directed by Courtney Sale, presented through July 28 as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Frank Center, 260 University Drive, on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $57-$67, at www.catf.org or 304/876-3473 | 800/999-2283. Adult language, crude behavior, drug use, offstage sexual conduct, mild violence.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman.