Chicago theaters brand themselves as surely as Sarah Palin and Android do. Eclipse is where you go to see a season of plays by a single playwright. Trap Door is all about the European avant-garde (though maybe they'd be about the American avant-garde, too, if we had one). Chicago Shakespeare—well, 'nuff said.
And Steep? Over the last two years the Edgewater-based storefront ensemble seems to have positioned itself as a home for contemporary playwrights from the UK. Six of Steep's last eight plays were written by men (yes, it's been all men) fitting that description.
But the parameters get even tighter. Of the aforementioned half-dozen plays, two were written by Simon Stephens and two—including the one onstage now, Under the Blue Sky—by David Eldridge.
No doubt that has something to do with the fact that Stephens and Eldridge have each handed Steep a hit: Stephens's Harper Regan and Eldridge's stage adaptation of the Danish movie Festen provided the raw materials for landmark productions. No wonder Steep returns to them.
And yet success isn't the only thing Steep's favorite Englishmen have in common. There's a remarkable continuity of style and subject matter between the two writers. Consider Under the Blue Sky and the last Stephens play Steep staged, Pornography.
Set in 2005, at the time of the London mass transit bombings, Pornography is an episodic work that follows various Londoners as they commit various sorts of transgressive acts, from incest and porn surfing to corporate sabotage and terrorism. One of those Londoners is Mohammad Sidique Khan, who helped carry out the bombings, but he's not so much the central character in Pornography as he is its presiding, warped spirit. The others connect to him and to one another only obliquely if at all. They may register the blasts, but they're not vitally involved with them. They've each got their own problems, not to say their own crimes.
Under the Blue Sky is neither as diverse nor as anomic in tone as Pornography. Its six characters resolve into three heterosexual couples and all of them are the Brit equivalents of high school teachers. Nary a jihadist among them. Still, like Stephens, Eldridge puts each couple in its own, separate dramatic pouch. Those pouches aren't airtight; the members of each couple know the members of the others professionally—and perhaps, in one case, intimately—but their interconnections don't really signify at the moment when we see them. These folks relate to one another only in passing. And, yes, they have their own, separate problems.
The first vignette is given over to Helen and Nick, fellow faculty members who've been close friends for years. They have outings. They even slept together once. She's obviously crazy about him and considers it a good sign that he's finally invited her to his apartment for dinner—at least until he tells her he's decided to take a job at another school and makes noises about continuing to be "friends." Given that Helen is played by Caroline Neff, who's stunning, it seems hard to believe that Michael Salinas's Nick would be backing away from her. Soon enough, however, we're given a good look at the neediness that's scaring him.
The next scene puts us in the bedroom of an asthmatic bird-watching enthusiast named Graham who looks to be on the threshold of a teachers' lounge fantasy come true. Math instructor Michelle has come back to his room with him, she's drinking a lot, and she's got a legendary rep for sluttiness. She's also got a nasty mouth and unmitigated rage. In Julia Siple's performance, she's a near-sociopathic, horrifically sloppy succubus.
Finally there are Anne and Robert, whose relationship amounts to a sunny inversion of the one between Helen and Nick. They're colleagues, good friends, and traveling companions. Though they enjoy the easy intimacy of lovers, their relationship is platonic—and, given the 20-year difference in their ages, Anne, the elder partner, thinks it best to keep it that way. Robert, however, wants the whole package. Eldridge gives us the conversation at which the matter is decided.
All three of the pieces are entertaining, all three offer interesting dynamics. The Anne-and-Robert passage is probably the least effective of them because actors Jim Poole and Melissa Riemer don't register the age difference that's supposed to be crucial to their conflict. Even so, they evince a winning tenderness. Helen and Nick would be harrowing if Salinas had found a way to make the fear in his negotiations more palpable. Siple's Michelle and Alex Gillmor's Graham, meanwhile, are a chilling hoot in what turns out to be a surprisingly fair fight.
Ultimately, Eldridge's scenes don't hold together like those in Pornography. For all their little affinities of motif, they lack the overarching tension generated by Stephens's Khan. Under the Blue Sky comes across as a collection, building to not much.