Theatre in Review

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 23:45

Review: Blind Date at Goodman Theatre

Who’d have thought a Cuban-born playwright could endear an auditorium of liberals to Ronald Reagan. Rogelio Martinez’s new play ‘Blind Date’ is a fictionalized account of the very real first meeting between Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (William Dick) and President Ronald Reagan (James D. Farruggio). Robert Falls returns to the Goodman to direct this world premiere.

Billed as a comedy, some will wonder what could be funny about a world on the brink of nuclear war? As it turns out, quite a bit. ‘Blind Date’ is basically a drawing room comedy. Most of the scenes are two-person conversations between the various historic players of the time. Beginning with US Secretary of State George Schultz (Jim Ortlieb) and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (Steve Pickering) all the way up to the fateful meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva.

The narrative structure of this piece is interesting. In some cases, cast members speak their opinions directly to the audience. In other instances, there’s narration by way of British biographer Edmund Morris (Thomas J. Cox). The narration serves the playwright’s thesis that even his own biographer didn’t really understand Reagan. The asides are more often a conveyance for one-liners. Though, they do provide insight into the mindset of the Soviets and Americans in these meetings.

It’s no surprise that Falls has assembled some of Chicago’s foremost actors for this new play. Deanna Dunagan plays Nancy Reagan, in a nearly perfect likeness no less, while Goodman favorite Mary Beth Fisher plays Raisa Gorbachev. The two first ladies share a scene in which almost nothing of consequence is discussed, but the slight backhanded compliments and fuss made over tea bags versus loose leaf underscore how tenuous relations between the super powers were. Each thinking themselves superior in domesticity and political ideology. Scenes featuring Dunagan and Fisher are the most engaging as the dialogue sharpens to a point. What few may consider is how much influence these two women had over their husbands. Despite contradicting opinions, both sides desperately wanted to see an end to the nuclear arms race. A noble idea that has unfortunately taken a wrong turn since the mid-80s.

There’s danger in glorifying Ronald Reagan as an innocuous savior from nuclear war. His optimism regarding the Soviets was certainly helpful but in the end, the Soviet Union collapsed from a failing economy, not Reagan’s pro-Democracy initiatives. And yes, it’s easy to look at Reagan and think, at least he’s not our current president, but let’s not forget the homophobic blind eye his administration turned toward the AIDS crisis, and the lasting effects of the unsuccessful war on drugs.

This play is a lot like an average Oscar-bait movie. You know the type: polished historical drama about a specific section of history, usually starring high profile British actors like Judi Dench. Ones that you know you should see, but probably won’t. It’s okay for a play to be ephemeral. In this case, the global nuclear stakes are so high right now that it’s vital for Americans to understand how serious even the tiniest miscommunication could be. It’s important for Americans to remember what diplomacy looked like. Think of the current president’s impulsive behavior on Twitter. Rogelio Martinez’s play may make you giggle at Reagan’s loveable weirdness, but the gravity of this meeting with Gorbachev in 1986 should frighten us all. These were poor leaders who made a very smart decision. It’s a terrifying shame our current leaders would rather go back in time.

At Goodman Theatre through February 25th. 170 N Dearborn. 312-443-3811

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Bruce Norris, also a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble, wrote and directed this very funny, fast moving play about a gynecologist turned politician, Bill Pulver, who ends up putting a young prostitute into a coma during rough sex play. 

 

The play opens at a press conference as the news hits the public about the young woman struggling for life on a respirator where it is also noted  with disgust that she was wearing a child's school uniform when found - much like Pulver’s uniforms his own two young daughters wear to school.

 

As the play goes on, we find out this is not a one-time event, and in fact it is slowly revealed that he has been seeing various prostitutes for over a decade and has spent more than $76,000.00 of he and his wife's money on his “hobby”, or “sex addiction” which is never made clear. 

 

I really enjoyed that the female characters far outnumbered the male characters in this play. It gave each of the leads especially Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Pulver’s wife Judy the chance to really tear up the stage with some fantastic speeches. 

 

Steppenwolf favorite Tom Irwin in the lead as Pulver is perfect as the slightly charismatic, Bill Clinton-ish character who thinks he has no reason to say he's sorry to the public or anyone else. Pulver feels that cheating on his wife with a prostitute is not an ongoing affair, but rather a victim-less crime and a necessity for any man who has been married as long as he has. Pulver refuses to apologize to the public at the press conference and seems to think what he has done is as common as using porn anonymously on the internet except that the porn actually comes to you and has sex with you. 

 

The couple has a preteen daughter they adopted from Asia who shows a slideshow throughout the play describing how different species of animals have much more dominant females than humans do. Some that do not even require a male to reproduce. Cassidy was who was played sensitively by Emily Chang is literally sickened by the arguing going on around her, grabbing her inhaler and running offstage which neither parent seems to notice or really care about. 

 

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliantly written, witty, almost manifesto-like feminist play. Refreshing is that Norris is not afraid to bring to the surface such taboo subject matter, for instance when the older daughter brings up how upset she is and genuinely concerned with issues like female genital mutilation, a desperately important and horrific feminist and human rights desecration I did not even know existed when I was a teenager.

 

But then completely disappointing is when Norris writes a final scene where the victim awakens from her coma and seems to be seeking publicity for a book about her injuries. This scene seemed to turn everything around as if it was her fault or intent in some way to capitalize on his crime and shows the husband and wife on opposite sides of the stage breathing a sigh of relief, almost as if to say that if she's not “dead”, and wants some retribution, she probably is a just a whore who "asked for it”, and he is just a regular cheating husband just like any other husband except that he wanted to hold public office while continuing to cheat on his wife with prostitutes. It was almost as if Pulver should be absolved of his wrong doing and may actually even become the victim when the rest of the play, up until that point, steered us otherwise.

 

I know some men will be aggravated watching this play but intrigued while women will just love it. In fact, there was a gentleman sitting next to me who stated in the after play discussion, "His wife is such a shrew, I think he had a right to cheat on her." I quickly asked, "Even if that's true, did he have the right to lie to her for a decade? To expose her to any number of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS without her knowledge?" The man fell silent and could not answer me, but I suspect he and his wife had quite a rousing discussion on their ride home! 

 

Funny, smart and dark, running 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, "Domesticated" is exciting to watch, full of great performances and highly recommended. “Domesticated” will get you and your partner  talking - and maybe in the process even fuel a few long overdue divorces of its own.

 

“Domesticated” is playing at Steppenwolf Theatre through February 7th. For more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org.  

Published in Theatre Reviews

White Guy on the Bus is a powerful and very well-acted drama that asks several questions about modern day racism. In this highly provocative piece by Bruce Graham, we are met with race issues and opinions based on life’s experiences coming from both sides of the fence. We see how perception of race can be altered as one’s life situation changes or after impactful events occur. In this world premiere taking place at Northlight Theatre, award-winning Graham may have unleashed his best work to date.

Francis Guinan leads a very strong cast in this gripping story that mostly takes place in an upper class suburb. Ray (Guinan) is a successful “numbers guy” who makes the rich richer while his wife, Roz, has declined to teach in a privileged suburban school to work in one that is predominantly black in a tough neighborhood. We see a successful family whose son, Christopher, has recently become engaged to Molly. It doesn’t take long before Roz and Molly are engaged in tension-filled debates on race issues and socioeconomic divide – Roz who often speaks from her experiences of working with inner city school kids and Molly who has led a mostly sheltered life and appears to get most of her opinions from college. As the story continues we see that perspective changes with circumstance. And we soon wonder why Ray ditches his Mercedes to take round trip busses through the inner city on Saturdays. As Ray does this he befriends Shatique, a young black single mother who visits her brother in jail each Saturday.

White Guy on the Bus goes from engaging to intense with little warning. As the story progresses so does its intrigue. Guinan is commanding in a lights out performance as a man who is faced with heavy challenges while Mary Beth Fisher is also impressive in her role as Roz, organically delivering her lines to perfection. Patrice D. McClain makes her Northight debut and is very impressive as Shatique, a role that demands much expression and inner conflict. Also putting out a strong acting performance is Jordan Brown as Christopher in his return to Northlight (Sense and Sensibility).

This is a story that raises curiosity from the get go and builds interest with a sure-footed steady pace all the way to its climactic ending. Artistic Director BJ Jones does a stellar job in this play’s direction quickly moving the story back and forth without big scene changes.

White Guy on the Bus is a terrific piece of Chicago theatre that will certainly stick with you afterwards and perhaps have you questioning your own perspectives towards race issues. White Man on the Bus is playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through February 28th. For tickets and/or more information call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org

*Photo - Mary Beth Fisher and Francis Guinan in White Man on the Bus

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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