BWW Review: SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN at Goodman Theatre
Ellen Fairey's SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN, now in a world premiere at Goodman Theatre, finds that sweet spot between hilarious and gently critical of modern society. As might be presumed from the title, Fairey's play concerns a gathering of four Chicago men who come together on Thursday nights in an apartment that borders on the edge of Wrigleyville and Boystown. Fairey's exploration of gender roles and the increasing need to become more open and embracing of those outside the binary means that the play's locale is particularly central to its narrative. And while some of the characters in SUPPORT GROUP seem rather set in their ways, Fairey is careful to never point fingers in a mean-spirited way. The play succeeds in large part because Fairey displays such a great deal of empathy for each of her characters.
I saw an early version of SUPPORT GROUP for the first time in 2016 as part of the Goodman's annual New Stages festival, and the play is now overall tighter and funnier. SUPPORT GROUP maintains a lightheartedness throughout that serves the piece immensely well. This lightness of tone allows Fairey to examine issues without giving the play a judgmental air. Of course, many elements in SUPPORT GROUP are intentionally meant to be eye-brow raising. For example, in an unabashed appropriation of Native American culture, the men of the support group use a talking stick and assume Native American nicknames as part of their ritual. Yet the overall comical tone makes it such that these moments are more a comment on the characters' sometimes ill-intentioned choices.
With dynamic direction by Kimberly Senior, SUPPORT GROUP's ensemble further adds to the foundation of empathy that Fairey lays out in her script and make the most of every moment. It's also notable that this is not a support group only for straight white men, but that these men come from a variety of different backgrounds. Brian (a terrific Ryan Kitley) is the owner of the aforementioned Lakeview apartment. Though he's into his 50s, Brian prides himself on his ability to keep up with the times-he works at the Apple Store and has a much younger girlfriend (though his friends are convinced it won't last). Tommy Rivera-Vega brings a burst of energy as Brian's co-worker Kevin. Anthony Irons plays Delano, Brian's high school classmate who isn't at all afraid to share his feelings with the group-to hilarious effect.
And then there's Roger (the always excellent Keith Kupferer), who is by far the group member most set in his ways. Even though some of Roger's views may seem backward and dated to audiences, Kupferer's humorous and genuine take on the role allows him to garner empathy. The group is also given quite a surprise when Alex (a superb Jeff Kurysz) seeks refuge in Brian's apartment. Rounding out the cast are Sadieh Rifai and Eric Slater as two Chicago cops, both giving solid performances.
Though SUPPORT GROUP is thoroughly enjoyable, Fairey's script still feels somewhat unfinished. Fairey tries to fit in as many relevant societal issues as possible, but references to the Women's March and the #MeToo movement feel shoehorned into the script. The play also feels like it isn't quite sure where or how it should end; the front half is tightly structure, but the second half feels loose.
Thanks to Senior's terrific direction, however, the play moves along at a rapid clip. Senior also has given the production a heightened physicality that adds further dimension to the story (aided by choreographer Tommy Rapley and fight choreographer Matt Hawkins). The design elements also serve SUPPORT GROUP well. Jack Magaw has designed a magnificent and realistic Chicago apartment as the show's set, and Noël Huntzinger's costume designs develop each character's personality further-particularly the fabulous costume she has designed for Alex (for fear of spoiling the play, I won't say much more here). Jen Schriever's lighting design adds a great deal of atmosphere as well.
Overall SUPPORT GROUP manages to be wonderfully empathetic and laugh-out-loud funny even as it examines some deeply serious issues. This careful balance is precisely what makes Fairey's play such a pleasure to watch, and the stellar combination of Senior's direction and the well-casted ensemble make that even more the case.
Photo by Liz Lauren