Evanston: A Rare Comedy
nytheatre.com review by Joshua Conkel
July 15, 2009
Something is rotten in Evanston.
I've never visited Evanston, Illinois, the titular town most famous for its Northwestern University. If Wolf 359's new play, Evanston: A Rare Comedy, is any indication, it's some sort of shining consumer's paradise offering lots of organic goodies at the local Whole Foods, yet little to feed the soul. Playwright Michael Yates Crowley's Evanston is a sort of purgatory for privileged intellectuals, where even in the midst of a financial meltdown, throw pillows matter more than people and the only spirituality to speak of can be found in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. It's no wonder its denizens are in the midst of a crisis of spirit. Crowley's vision of Evanston, though seemingly exaggerated to comedic effect at first glance, feels terrifyingly familiar and becomes a major character in its own right.
Against this backdrop of gross consumerism, three friends hold weekly meetings of a ladies-only book club. Divorcee Sharon is rigid in her opinions on how things out to be, even when her old way of life is slipping from her grasp. Her best friend, Betsey, fancies herself a martyr after washing the feet of a Mexican day laborer in a public fountain. In the center of it all is poor Marta, who struggles to keep herself and everybody else happy while she copes with a missing daughter, a philandering husband, a transgender librarian, and an aggressive Whole Foods clerk. Needless to say, things could be better for the characters in Evanston: A Rare Comedy.
Product placement abounds in this play. In particular, a list of a deceased person's favorite things is read at their funeral and more closely resembles a stroll through Sephora rather than anything actually meaningful. (The seemingly endless list ends elegantly with "pilates.") This kept making me think of the soap operas our mothers and grandmother used to watch, themselves just vehicles to convince housewives to buy things they didn't need. This ironic product placement serves the play well. In fact, the production achieves something remarkable in that it's a black comedy that isn't cynical. It manages to satirize us without alienating us. The characters, in spite of their monstrous self-involvement and inability to process their feelings in healthy ways, seem sincere and all too real.
Michael Rau's direction is as smart and crisp as could be hoped for, with the characters only leaving the playing space to sit on its edge, still on stage, either reading or staring out longingly into space. The gimmick works. The cast, too, is unanimously talented. Anna Margaret Hollyman is delightful as Sharon, the self-involved divorcee, and Crowley, the playwright himself, (as Betsey, in drag) gives a nuanced and truthful performance that by lesser actors could have been mere send-up. Sam West and Devon Jordan turn in solid performances as a pair of star-crossed lovers in an extramarital affair: a professor of economics experiencing white guilt and a black Whole Foods check-out clerk learning to forbear, respectively. Chas Carey is possessed of an impressive deadpan as the transgender grad student who only dreams of death, and I was particularly fond of Leah Karpel, giving one of the most simultaneously dark and yet hilarious teen-angst performances I've ever seen. Bodine Alexander (Marta) is the heart of the production. Alexander's desperate housewife is as tragic as she is naïve and seems totally unable to process normal human emotions. Her performance is incredibly thoughtful and specific, managing to keep the chaotic world of the play centered.
Special notice must also be given to Asa Wember, whose soundscape guides us through the various locations on what is an incredibly spartan set. This brings me to my only quibbles with the production. Even just one aesthetic detail in the set could have made the production more cohesive. As is, the production weighs its success entirely on sound design. It works, but I couldn't help thinking this could have been achieved more efficiently. Also, at an hour and forty-five minutes or so, Evanston: A Rare Comedy is far too long to not include an act break. That said, I made sure to look behind me about ten minutes before the end of the play to look at the audience's faces. I saw a room full of people thoroughly engaged.
Evanston: A Rare Comedy reminded me of a soap opera, not only because of the endless product placement, but also because I wished it would go on. I found myself wishing that Evanston was a series I could come back to every week and check in on my favorite characters. In a good soap opera, even when it's over the top, we applaud appallingly bad behavior and sympathize with our favorite character's hardships. I was similarly engaged during Michael Yates Crowley's seemingly dark, but ultimately thoughtful little comedy. If you plan on seeing anything at PS 122's undergroundzero festival, Evanston: A Rare Comedy is not to be missed.