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Humans Behaving Badly

In The Unmentionables, making its world premiere at Steppenwolf, Bruce Norris's ugly Americans go to West Africa.

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The Unmentionables

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Anyone who was made uncomfortable by the combination of moppet actors and soft-core porn in Bruce Norris's play for Steppenwolf last summer, The Pain and the Itch, can save their outrage this time around. His new play, The Unmentionables, tackles themes far less cringe inducing for Americans than sex: state-sanctioned torture and the West's economic rape of the third world.

The tempest in a designer teapot over the children cast in The Pain and the Itch tended to overshadow discussions of its merits--though eventually it did win a Jeff Award for best new play. Unlike Tony Kushner in his Old Testament-prophet mode, Norris seldom courts serious consideration. That doesn't mean he doesn't deserve it. The Pain and the Itch and 2002's Purple Heart are both terribly funny and relentlessly, unflinchingly ugly. The stranger who visits the grieving Vietnam war widow in Purple Heart isn't a source of comfort or healing but another nail in the coffin of her sanity. In The Pain and the Itch, the disease that afflicts a family of self-absorbed, hypocritical liberals began with a brutal assault in an eastern European country, brought to light only by a banal extramarital affair.

But The Pain and the Itch is more drawing-room farce than social satire. Norris's worldview, that people are essentially selfish and tend to behave badly in times of crisis, carries more weight in The Unmentionables, which hints at a rough-hewn George Bernard Shaw--it's like Heartbreak House in postcolonial Africa. He's finally willing to take all of us--his characters, the audience, and presumably himself--out of our comfort zone. This play about Americans living in equatorial West Africa focuses on people who either have misguided notions of African life or little interest in the world beyond their villa. But we're spared long monologues explaining Western culpability in African genocides, and we're spared twinkly-eyed natives who serve as beacons of folksy wisdom for the bourgeois abroad. Instead Norris simply dumps us into a world that's familiar in its creature comforts but otherwise strange and utterly menacing so that, like the characters, we begin to fear whatever lies beyond the wire-topped walls.

The Unmentionables focuses on two white couples: American industrialist Don and his motormouth wife, Nancy, and the engaged couple they've invited into their home, missionaries Dave and Jane. "Father Dave's" school was burned down, and one of the boys suspected of setting the fire, Etienne, has accused Dave of making improper advances toward him. Jane, a successful television actress in the States, walked away from a hit drama to pursue more meaningful work in Africa--though in much of the first scene she's laid up, mewling and weak, by fibromyalgia. Still, she's happy to be free of creating "mindless moronic shit for the consumption of an audience of shitheads"--something she thoughtlessly declares just moments after Don and Nancy have told her how much they loved the show. (As in Norris's other plays, many of the laughs come from his characters' social missteps.) When Dave and Jane get into a spat, he storms off. When he doesn't come back, the others--especially black politician and power broker Aunty Mimi--fear he's been kidnapped. There's good reason to be afraid: Dave's predecessor was chopped into bits by locals who decided they didn't like his style of ministry. Aunty Mimi's guards bring Etienne to the house for questioning, and in the harrowing penultimate scene Jane must decide whether concern for her fiance overrides her principled stand against torture.

Norris is fortunate that Steppenwolf has once again entrusted his work to director Anna D. Shapiro. With her subtlety and intelligence, she never allows the cast to oversell either the play's comedy or the latent horror of its final moments. Amy Morton gives Nancy a faint undercurrent of genuine (if misdirected) humanitarian concern. Rick Snyder conveys both Don's annoying air of entitled bonhomie and its underlying emptiness and ill-defined longing. Shannon Cochran as Jane moves from a near hysteric to a woman in authentic turmoil. And Lea Coco is excellent as the stiff-necked Dave, often an object of ridicule--though his stubborn uprightness, tempered by anguished questioning of his own motives, allows a shaft of light to fall on the play's bleak end. Ora Jones roots Aunty Mimi in bitter honesty and flamboyant determination, saving her from cartoonishness, and Jon Hill is defiant and incendiary as Etienne. Norris chooses to bookend the show with Etienne's verbal assaults on the audience for wasting their money on it--a misstep that both indicts and exculpates us. If it's only a play, why get riled up?

Don and Nancy's doctor (Kenn E. Head), who's attending Jane, at one point wonders aloud why only Western women get fibromyalgia and answers the question "Doctor, why am I in pain?" with a simple "Because life is painful." But in The Unmentionables Norris has progressed from merely pointing at his characters' pain to implicating us in the exploitation of other nations. And he does it without knee-jerk screeds or offering knee-jerk solutions. Though I've admired Norris in the past for not promoting easy pieties, here he does take bigger chances, allowing characters lost in a fog of self-absorption some breathing room and a few fumbling attempts at doing actual good. Fluid, disturbing, and thoroughly engaging, The Unmentionables is a significant step forward for a challenging playwright.

When: Through 8/27: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $20-$60Info 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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