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Steppenwolf's Next Up strikes out

No home runs in the annual showcase for theater MFAs

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Run in collaboration with Northwestern University, Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Next Up program gives a few lucky MFA candidates the chance to stage a show with a professional cast and the imprimatur of one of the bigger fish in America's theatrical pond. I hope the kids get some useful lessons from the experience—but even if they don't, wow, you can't beat Steppenwolf for a resume credit.

The plays picked for this year's Next Up are Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, Adam Bock's The Drunken City, and Anne Washburn's The Internationalist. They have a good deal in common. All three are recent but not new, dating from the mid-2000s. They were all written by active American playwrights (or Americanish, anyway, Bock being a lapsed Canadian). And they all focus on conventionally immature urban American (or maybe Canadian) Gen Xers who fuck up romantically in small, more or less private ways that are traumatic but never quite threatening.

Finally, all of them receive serviceable, less than satisfying productions here.

Let's get Bock's The Drunken City out of the way first, since it's by far the worst piece of the bunch—a grating, textbook example of how sitcom values have colonized the theater. Bossy Melissa, alcoholic Linda, and unassertive Marnie are girlfriends from the suburbs who've come to "the city" for Marnie's bachelorette blowout. By the time we meet them, they're way drunk—as are Frank and Tom, who are engaged in their own pub crawl. Frank has been carrying a torch for the long-lost Priscilla, but when he and Marnie start making out, the earth shakes. I mean, literally. In an ostentatious—and too-often repeated—bit of whimsy, everybody tumbles around the stage like it's Krakatoa.

The really insufferable aspect of The Drunken City is Bock's energetic attempt to draw comedy from stupidity. These folks have that contrived denseness that makes you feel vaguely unclean and anxious when you see it on TV.

Director John Michael DiResta can't overcome that, of course, despite a strong cast—especially Emjoy Gavino as Linda—and a solid sense of pacing. But he and his fellow NU student, designer Yu Shibagaki, unnecessarily hobble the production with a set whose main feature, a stretch of sidewalk, is both nonsensical in terms of the reality of the situation and severely limiting in terms of blocking.

LaBute's Fat Pig depicts the ugly consequences that ensue when young exec Tom falls in love with an obese, affable librarian named Helen, thereby betraying not only his moneyed class but the body-obsessed culture he inhabits. A born preacher, LaBute isn't subtle about drawing contrasts: Tom's relationship with Helen is more than good, it's "ecstasy," and his work friends are less than thoughtless, they're appalling. Fat Pig is brilliant, however, when it comes to demonstrating how nasty social norms can infect and inhibit souls—Helen's as well as Tom's—even (or perhaps especially) in the face of ecstasy.

David Prete's production offers some lovely gestures. One in particular has Anne Joy's Helen patting down Tom's suit jacket in search of a pen with which to write her number, and thereby telling us how sweetly unceremonious she is. Where Prete goes wrong is when he pushes other physical bits too far. A moment in which Tom's former office flame starts slapping him silly is, well, silly. Far from providing insight or excitement, it just starts you wondering why she's not fired on the spot.

Of the three, The Internationalist is the most formally intriguing, placing a jet-lagged American businessman, Lowell, in an Eastern European country where he has to cope with a language he doesn't understand and social signals he can't decipher. Washburn puts us in the same disconcerting situation that Lowell is in by having the native characters speak an ersatz patois in his presence. Replete with intrigues sexual and economic, it's reminiscent of China Mieville's great weird-fiction novel The City & the City.

Or it could be, I don't know for sure. Director Erin Murray has bitten off more than she can chew, and the result is confused rather than tantalizing. Murray's crack cast do a marvelous job of spinning out the patois while creating vivid characters, and her set designer, Stephanie Cluggish, pulls off some nice scenic effects. The signs that she's been overwhelmed are fairly obvious, however, in problems ranging from a failure to find a solid convention for language switches to messy transitions when roles are doubled up. The best you can do is respect her ambition.

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