Regional Reviews: Chicago
Arrington's text constitutes a commentary not merely on relationships–romantic, marital, familial, and so on–but on writers and writing. The play begins with the end, as the audience learns via text that appears character-by-character on a screen above the stage. Nick and Sunny, huddled together in the cold on a park bench, wonder whether their daughter, Josie, is in bed somewhere in the world seven hours ahead of them. They learn, via text, that she is, and Nick helps an obviously and seriously ill Sunny back to her place.
The play then rewinds twenty-five years to the start of Nick and Sunny's relationship on another December evening that sees Nick stripping down to his socks in the snow to convey his desperation to connect with Sunny before they depart for their respective Christmas holidays. Guided by time points and thematic way-finding text projected on the screens by a figure with an iPad that we come to realize is Josie, we travel through her parents' courtship, marriage and divorce, as well as the relationship that Sunny eventually forges with Mac, Nick's younger second wife.
The staging places the story in Josie's hands as she decodes not only her parents' marriage, but the tragedies of the generations before that consigned her great-grandmother to bed, reading Henry James in a fit of rage, and killed her grandmother, whose name she bears, in childbirth. The projected text (design by Michael Salvatore Commendatore) paired with an innovative scenic design by Robert Brill makes the most of Steppenwolf's new in-the-round space, affording Josie constant, 360 access to the worked-over memories playing out and the audience access to her thought process as she works them over for herself, stepping into her legacy as the child of writers to assemble them into a narrative.
Brill has created a square platform on a pneumatic lift in the center of the stage's rectangular footprint. This allows Nick and Sunny to literally sink out of sight in the early, lust-filled moments of their relationship; similarly, later in the play, this lifts Nick and Mac from parts unknown to a bar somewhere to which the two have escaped from the publishing industry Christmas Eve party that is threaded through the story.
The center of the platform then revolves, slowly and constantly, whenever a scene is set on it, neatly accomplishing the practical goal of giving the entire audience a view of the actors and conveying the idea that Josie is constantly viewing these moments from her parents' life from all possible angles. After the first post-prologue scene on the quad, a rectangular space opens up, accommodating stairs from beneath the stage to allow characters to emerge from constant blackness into the interior of Nick and Sunny's New York apartment.
Thus, as Josie moves around the perimeter of the space, constantly observing and trying to pin the action to time and emotional space, Arrington and Kinney convey, with big assists from Heather Gilbert's lighting design and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, an array of viewpoints on the writer. Josie is a voyeur, and by extension so are the audience. She is a "sponge" as Nick frames it at one point, though he seems to have no insight that he himself is something more insidious and opportunistic as he co-opts the tragedy of the college professor in whose class he and Sunny met into his first (and only "great") book.
The play is consistently interesting, and Kinney's direction and the actors' feel for the characters successfully navigate through a few of the rough patches where the dialogue is a bit too painstaking in its quest to be sharp and clever at all times. But there are certainly bumps here. Arrington is primarily interested in Sunny, and she is well-developed on the whole. Mac, too, emerges as a real person out of a somewhat earthy riff on the manic pixie dream-girl she seems to be in her first scene.
Nick, in contrast, remains a rather indistinct figure. Arrington is well within her rights as the author to foreground the play's women and, from the perspective of the play as Josie's attempt to write her own story and the story of the women in her own life, it makes a kind of dramatic sense that she might move her father around the board without deeply contemplating the path he takes. But from the audience's point of view, there's little indication of growth or even change. He seems uninvolved in Josie's life (one of the more rewarding scenes between Sunny and Mac emanates from the fact that Mac, while she is Josie's stepmother, is the one to do school pick-up and drop-off), and the audience is fairly uninvolved in his. Thus, although the eventual friendship that he and Sunny seem to settle into might be satisfying to a young adult who decides to "end" her family's story at an idyllic middle point, the audience is left on high-alert on Sunny's behalf, as most of what we have seen indicates that women would do well to steer clear of him.
As Sunny, Judy Greer is fierce and compelling. She is more than believable as Sunny at each phase of the character's life, and her work with ensemble member Caroline Neff (Mac and other incidental characters) elevates Arrington's already strong material as the two women find their way from what could be a pre-packaged wife-and-other-woman dynamic into relating to one another as people. For those who associate Greer with broad comedy in her voiceover work or quirky supporting roles, this performance is a revelation.
Neff, too, deserves considerable praise. Although Arrington has infused the character with a real, grounded story and set of experiences, the well-worn nature of the story itself represents the constant danger of falling into clichés and tropes. Neff's feel for the comedic and dramatic rhythms of the dialogue is impressive, as is her ability to slip out of Mac's skin and into the faceless roles of a doctor, a waitress, and so on.
As Nick, ensemble member Ian Barford manages to capture that there is something attractive about the character, not just to the comparatively naive Sunny back in Chicago, but tragically to the Sunny who, five years after the end of their marriage, is still tempted by his kiss. But the character remains a detailed outline, rather than something that emerges convincingly from the page. We know Nick is the third son of a prominent literary family. We learn, incidentally, that he lives off his family's money until he, horror of horrors, is forced to take a job teaching. We know that for some reason, after twenty-odd years of dipping in and out of his daughter's life, he is suddenly moved to look after Sunny in her illness. Barford plays each dot with laudable success, but the connections simply aren't there.
As Josie, Nicole Scimeca is earnest and productively of no particular age, other than "young." But the character has no lines in the first act, and it's thus rather a surprise when she suddenly takes on a much more active role as a kind of narrator in the second. Scimeca admirably handles the material the play gives her, and her rapport with Greer and Barford creates a gratifying jewel of a family moment, yet there's a somewhat tentative feeling in the way this character is integrated into the play. Arrington doesn't seem certain about how she intends to deploy her, and the audience is left in an analytical, rather than emotional, frame of mind at the end.
Another Marriage runs through July 23, 2023, at Steppenwolf 's Helen Zell Theatre, 1646 N. Halsted St., Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.