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Playing Family Feud at Steppenwolf's First Look

They always hurt the ones they love in theater's three-play repertory.

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There's a neat little feature in the program for this year's First Look Repertory of New Work, at Steppenwolf Theatre. It's called "The Pyramid Challenge," and the way it operates is that each of the three playwrights getting developmental stagings of their scripts is asked ten questions. The first response must be given in one word, the second in two, and so on, yielding an interview that's graphically wide on the bottom and narrow at the top—i.e., a pyramid.

Question number one for all the playwrights is, simply, "What is your play about?" Edith Freni and Aaron Carter both answered "love"; Janine Nabers went with "identity." But if you ask me, I'd say the best reply across the board would've been family. After all, it's from their families that the dysfunctional folks in these plays get their rueful-to-completely-fucked-up notions of what love and identity might be. Family is the heart of their various darknesses.

A prime example is the nasty little nuclear unit in Freni's Buena Vista. Postnuclear, really: mom Freddy and dad Tom have been divorced for about two decades, or since their boy, Noah, was 11 years old.

Raised in a hand-built cabin high up in the mountains outside Buena Vista, Colorado (an actual town, by the way, that calls itself "8,000 feet above average"), Noah left to attend Yale University and follow his dream of creating a human habitat on the ocean floor off southern Florida. The thirtysomething prodigal son has returned home now, though, seeking refuge in the wake of professional and romantic reversals. Only, when he arrives at the cabin for what he expects will be a quiet retreat, he finds Freddy already in residence there. And, especially in Karen Vaccaro's scary performance, she's a piece of work—a compulsive hoarder, at once wheedlingly prone to tears and vicious as hell.

Noah is understandably less than pleased to see her, and they have it out as a heavy snow falls outside, joined eventually by Tom and Noah's strangely dissociated girlfriend, Monica.

Freni and director Tim Hopper offer a few amusingly absurd moments, as when Monica tells a story about the Cabbage Patch doll she lost as a child while Noah shtups her from behind ("I'm coming," he huffs. "Just do it," she wearily replies). But overall Buena Vista has the feel of worshipful collegiate mimicry. I remember discovering Eugene Ionesco as a student and penning my own version of The Bald Soprano; not long after that, I read The Faerie Queene and composed an allegory, of all things. Freni's resumé suggests that she's well past that sort of apprentice-level stuff, yet Buena Vista comes off as an unacknowledged exercise in pastiche—specifically, an attempt at writing a Sam Shepard-style play, using tropes out of Buried Child. The trouble is that, although it's got some of Shepard's moves down pat, the piece at this point lacks the car-crash sense of inevitability that makes his work so chilling. The imitation, in short, is pale.

I suppose you could say Aaron Carter's The Gospel of Franklin borrows a page from Tennessee Williams in that it's framed as a reminiscence narrated by a grown son, a la The Glass Menagerie. But nothing else about Carter's First Look contribution can be considered derivative. This is an intimate tale, exploring a topic you just don't run into every day: the fraught relationship between a black man and his deeply religious and therefore deeply conflicted bisexual father.

Marvelously embodied by Gavin Lawrence in Robert O'Hara's production, the dad, Franklin, doesn't merely preach the word of God—he turns it into the world's most elaborate pickup line, making a specialty of using it on troubled young whites. We see him pull three despondent, dependent, vulnerable souls into tough-love master-disciple relationships that seem chaste and even therapeutic at first but that also carry a strong erotic charge. As Franklin's son, William, puts it, dad is the "pied piper of broke-down white boys." Still, since Franklin can't tolerate his own proclivities, there's pain all around.

And not least of all for William. His presence as narrator is a neat stroke, allowing Carter the means to invest his play not only with an easy, ironic humor, but, finally, with considerable tenderness.

The Gospel of Franklin may be the star of this year's First Look, but Nabers's Annie Bosh Is Missing supplies competent, conventional drama. The girl of the title is a 22-year-old mixed-race mess who, as a teenager, parlayed major recreational drug use into a suicide attempt. She isn't missing in a literal sense, but she's definitely at a loss. Out of rehab now, she's come home to a nice house in a gated community in Houston, where her mother keeps her under tight surveillance while her brother continues a quiet cocaine habit. Annie doesn't know what's become of her black father, whose genetic imprint is nowhere to be seen on her blond-haired, pink-skinned body; her wildly misguided attempts to compensate for that absence drive the action of the story, while the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina plays in the background.

Like I say, Nabers does a solid job. Annie Bosh has enough sex, surprises, and sweet, sweet love to remain interesting for 100 minutes. The only difficulties I had with the show as presented had to do with (a) getting Houston geography straight, and (b) overlooking William Boles's remarkably awkward scenic design.

But the show as presented lacks a crucial element. An alternate version of the script would give us a lot more on Annie's mom, Carol: the white former wife of a black man, who left Louisiana to become an anxious, rather racist matron living in an affluent Texas enclave. What's that about? As I watched Jennifer Avery give an intriguing, appropriately annoying performance in the role, I found myself wanting to know. Maybe one day we'll get a first look at Carol Bosh Has Been Restored.

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