• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

Men’s Support Group at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Gassy and unpredictable, witty and sentimental, Men’s support group It’s ninety minutes of circulation of our seemingly longer scene, a serious foray into secrets and feelings masked like comedy. It’s complicated without being complex; fun without being satisfying. It’s like the old cliché about Chinese cuisine: in half an hour, you’ll want to see another play.

(left to right) Juan Arturo, Chris Thorn, Scott Aiello and Ken Robinson in the Ellen Fairey’s Men’s Support Group at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (Photo: Set Freeman)

Let’s start by stating the obvious: men, like everyone else, have problems. If they choose to face these issues by talking to other men, who can say no to them? But playwright Ellen Fairey plays the concept up for a laugh, with the endurable men garnishing themselves with substitute Native American names, hokey rituals, and a rigged baseball bat that allows the holder to speak.

The character types are also familiar. There’s Brian (Chris Thorn), who organized the group and in whose apartment they meet. There’s Roger the Cynic (Scott Aiello, doing a nuanced job in there), Brian’s softball buddy, who finds the rituals ridiculous but has real problems. There’s Del (Ken Robinson), Brian’s high school friend, whose sick wife terrifies him with her self-loathing. And there’s Kevin (Juan Arturo), Brian’s little co-worker, who teaches salsa alongside and whose love life – or at least his sex life – has been unsatisfying lately.

As Fairey describes it, the deal is that the bat bearer has the floor so he can describe his current woes. Others are prohibited from interrupting, giving advice, or even commenting. They are there for bear witness, at to listen, the implication being that the suffering man suffers in silence, in a culture unprepared to recognize his burdens.

Julia Coffey in the Ellen Fairey’s Men’s Support Group at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (Photo: Seth Freeman)

Then of course after testifying everyone slaps various body parts and growls.

Many comments are sandwiched between all the witnesses. Brian’s apartment is apparently on top of a bar, and not all of the action is, strictly defined, heterosexual. This causes a halting conversation about gender identity, as you can imagine the Chicago men who came of age during the Second Bush administration. In the middle, a new noise comes from the alley below: two men beat a woman. The men’s support group rushes to support the woman.

You can almost guess the rest, but let me explain it to you. After a wicked, brutal, and brief visit from two Chicago cops (Tom Coiner and Julia Coffey), the support group discovers that the victimized woman was not a woman at all but a transvestite and decidedly heterosexual man, Alejandro (Rolando Chusan ), who rightly assures them that he gave as much as he got. For the remainder of the evening, the men’s support group learns how to extend their support to men who like to dress like women. Leading the way is Roger, who, faced with his own failure to measure himself against an unrealistic male ideal, learns to hold his judgment on those with alternate views of masculinity.

Scott Aiello and Rolando Chusan in Ellen Fairey’s Men’s Support Group at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (Photo: Seth Freeman)

If Fairey had written this play fifteen years ago, it might have been groundbreaking stuff, but the message (“accept men who like to dress as women”) seems pretty dated now. The most difficult message, dealing with men who not only dress as women, but believe that they can, by statement, to become women, is intact, except in a vaguely comical way.

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Which describes another problem with this story, it’s not clear if it’s a comedy or a drama. A play can be both, of course. Destroy, a better play, also presented at CATF, succeeds as both a terrifying drama and a rowdy comedy. That’s because in this play, the comedy detonates terror at key points, and terror hangs over the comedy, making the characters’ comedic jokes even more absurd. In Support Group For Men, comedy and drama seem to come at random. Imagine a hot roast beef sandwich topped with vanilla ice cream, and you have Support group for men.

Men’s support group at the Contemporary American Theater Festival ends July 28, 2019. Details and tickets

That’s not to say that the play – and in particular the production – has no merit. Sometimes the comedy is really, really funny. The characters are well developed, with their own quirks, some of them quite unpredictable. The cast all perform honorably, and Coffey and Thorn are known to convincingly play two entirely different characters in Destroy and Support group for men. (Coiner, on the other hand, plays two nearly identical characters in both rooms and does a good job in both). If you see this show you will probably have a great time. I just wish it was better.

Let me end on a happier note. I have seen three shows so far at CATF, and the technique has been wonderful in all of them. Here, the technical artists have outdone themselves. David Barber’s ensemble perfectly captures a small apartment in gentrified Chicago, and Victoria Deiorio’s sound design is perfect. DM Wood’s lighting design is exquisite – the apartment windows are perfectly lined with reflected red light, to show us the presence of the bar below. CATF technical staff initiate the fictitious dream as soon as the lights are turned on. Afterwards, it is in the hands of the playwright and the actors, and of us.

Men’s support group by Ellen Fairey. Directed by Courtney Sale. With Scott Aiello, Chris Thorn, Ken Robinson, Juan Arturo, Tom Coiner, Julia Coffey and Rolando Chusan. Scenography and projection: David Barber. Costume design: Thérèse Bruck. Lighting design: DM Wood. Sound design: Victoria Deiorio Technical director: Kevin Dunckel. Stage manager: Paul Mills Holmes, assisted by Ryan Kane. Production manager: Deb Acquavella. Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.