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Flirting With Disaster

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Goodbye Stranger

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

The most tragic thing about Glad--the protagonist of Carrie Luft's picaresque satire of late-20th-century hipster culture--is that I can't remember ever meeting anyone quite like him. As he wanders, naive and huggable as a modern-day Candide or slacker Forrest Gump, in a haze of blissful ignorance through the bleak urban landscape, you half think that Luft is having a joke at the poor sap's expense: his moniker is a contraction of his given name, Galahad--the knight errant of the Round Table.

But as the play goes on, you begin to see that there's something refreshingly singular and knightly about Glad: in this dreary milieu, his Panglossian innocence borders on the heroic, which in Luft's world of vapid, fearful misfits has nothing to do with slaying mysterious knights or searching for the Holy Grail. It means offering an umbrella to a deranged soul crouching in a gutter. It means believing the story a homeless mother tells you and giving her every penny you can. It means offering a cigarette to a stranger, providing comfort to a troubled friend, feeding a squirrel, giving your hat to someone who's freezing.

All the rest of Luft's characters occupy familiar states of alienation and detachment, but Glad is a walking exemplar of the bumper-sticker slogan Practice Random Acts of Kindness. Of course, it's only a matter of time before the misery of Glad's surroundings brings him down as well. Any time you run across a character named Glad or Happy or Hope, you know the play's going to be a downer. To Luft's credit, however, the play's demoralizing impact isn't felt until well into the second act, when no amount of puckish wit can disguise it.

The environment in Goodbye Stranger is a spare abstraction of the well-traveled terrain of Gen X culture, which labels even people well into their 30s as twentysomethings. The setting may not be as universal as Luft intends it to be, but it's certainly common enough: she calls it New York City, but Chicago, Seattle, or Austin would do as well. It's a world of temp jobs, overpriced coffeehouses, and thwarted ambitions. Everybody is down and on the way out. Romance is primarily a matter of chance, it's almost impossible to find a compassionate voice, and everyone except Glad is too self-absorbed to become deeply involved in anybody else's troubles.

Glad's best friend, Louise, is an agoraphobic verging on the suicidal whose fear of both affection and the outside world has made her a prisoner of her sofa. His buddies Todd and April, whom he meets at a slacker job hyping a liquor brand in a funky new bar, lack drive, focus, and any real ability to see beyond themselves. April, who's in a band, is so concerned with the surface of things that she'll spend an entire night searching for a guy whose orange hair hypnotized her on the dance floor. I can't even remember Todd's ambitions or defining characteristics, except for the fact that Glad remarks after kissing him that he tastes like a J. Crew catalog. But I'm pretty sure that's the point. These characters could have emerged from a Bret Easton Ellis novel, except they don't have the wherewithal to find the right drugs. They share certain characteristics with the figures in Richard Linklater's films but have far fewer opportunities for hope.

Thankfully, Luft avoids many of the hallmarks of the genre: there are no discussions of TV shows or divorced parents, and there's only one reference to Veruca Salt. In fact, my only major problem with this play--clearly the work of a very promising artist with a distinctive, compelling, if somewhat grim voice--is that it too closely mirrors the flaws of its characters. Like Glad, Luft ambles from sequence to sequence, taking in the scenery and seeming content with the smallest of victories. You never know for sure why she concentrates on some elements and glides past others. Though Luft unblinkingly charts the slow devolution of Glad's optimism, as his attempts at affection are rebuffed and he realizes that even his helpful offers don't amount to much, scenes don't otherwise follow any particular dramatic progression. Each could pretty much stand on its own, and several (most notably a forced confrontation between Glad and an old boss in a coffee shop and a couple of hackneyed fantasy sequences) could be lifted entirely without any discernible effect on the narrative.

The seeming triviality of Glad's plodding, episodic existence, however, also creates a profound sense of detachment in the viewer comparable to that found in Luft's characters. An eerie desperation pervades the play, an oppressive grayness consistent to a fault. Despite the unadorned poetry and wit of Luft's writing, particularly when she skewers vacuous bar conversations between people who have absolutely nothing to say to each other, the laughs are bitter--the same sort of sardonically amused reaction one might have to a witty Kurt Cobain lyric or clever line in a Beckett play.

One would hardly be surprised to hear one of Luft's characters remark, "Too bad we don't have a good bit of rope to hang ourselves with." Filled with staccato bursts and marked by a simplicity that borders on Gumpian shallowness, Luft's dialogue also occasionally brings to mind the comically aimless exchanges of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty. It's best when it's most basic, when Luft doesn't overreach and talk down to her audience with pseudo profundities on the order of "I can't believe our society," "I can't face the world," and "Life makes no sense."

Polly Noonan has cast Steppen-wolf's world premiere of Goodbye Stranger perfectly. Paul Adelstein is particularly strong as Glad, maintaining his brave, pained smile as the world begins to close in on him. Jill Kraft is dead-on as the vacuous, self-absorbed musician April. And Greta Oglesby splendidly eases in and out of four separate characters Glad encounters along the way. Daniel Ostling's set is littered with clever touches, in particular two yellow beanbag chairs that plop down on the stage with humorous thuds during one scene change. This sort of whimsy also characterizes Noonan's sharp direction: she keeps the show's spirits up, preventing it from ever fully descending into the doldrums of what could have been a thoroughly depressing affair.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Michael Brosilow.

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