Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review - What Guys Really Want - Chain Reaction Theatre Project - Unfortunately What I Really Want Is A Different Play - 3.5 stars

Director/creator/editor Shelley Smith informs the audience in a pre-show announcement that everything we’re about to see (with the exception of some scenes submitted by playwrights) is true.  This is both the blessing and the challenge of Chain Reaction Theatre Project’s new work What Guys Really Want.  Subtitled as “heartfelt stories about masculinity,” the “true story” nature of the material does make a lot of it more compelling, but it also seems to have hamstrung the production team a bit in terms of the creative license to craft any kind of a through line for the evening. 

“I was all for the idea of you killing yourself, but I was outvoted.”

The play doesn’t end so much as it just… stops, first for intermission, and then at the end when the script is just… done.  There are a lot of good moments throughout the evening, with the acting and the design and the material all working well together.  There are also dramatic conceits that get set up early on and then returned to throughout the performance.  But they don’t really build on one another, accumulating any kind of emotional momentum that leads to a conclusion.  Frequently the whole thing just reboots: new section, new characters, new angle on the subject.  And despite the fact that there are multiple collaborators contributing in a variety of different styles (scenes, monologues, poetry, interviews, testimony), there is a sameness to the quality of the overall writing and performance that sort of flattens everything out and doesn’t allow much real emotion to break through.  There are notable exceptions, of course, but Smith is exerting a pretty heavy directorial hand on the material that I’m not sure is allowing it to live up to its full potential even in its current form.

“When you’re told that boys are supposed to look or act a certain way, you listen.”

All the above notwithstanding, the ensemble (Naved Baysudee, Emily Carlson, Justin Cervantes, Elizabeth Efteland, Nolan Henningson, Mai See Lee, Eric Marinus, and Jordan Mitchell) is doing some really solid acting work, both individually and as a group.  They’re taking their marching orders and doing their level best.  When Smith and her writing partners (Bret Bailey, Staylon Blackmon, Bruce Bonafede, Scott Carter Cooper, Traiveon Dunlap, Dr. James Garbarino, W.L. Newkirk, Timmy Rawerts, Chris Stanley, and Philip Sturm) give the cast a chance to shine, the actors make the most of it.  Designers Cindy Forsgren (costumes), Nathan Schilz (sound), and Amala Harrison (props) give a big assist to the actors in helping them differentiate all their various characters and situations throughout the performance.

“Son, why are you avoiding me?”

Also, huge kudos to Smith for pulling together a more diverse cast than we normally get a chance to see, particularly since a lot of the material here seems to be from a straight white American male perspective.  It’s not what all guys really want, just a certain group of guys.  But the casting opens up the possibilities of the range of audience who can see themselves in these stories.

“Buy the tiniest dog I can find, put it in a sparkly collar, and take it with me everywhere I go.”

What Guys Really Want can veer from vague to intriguingly specific depending on the moment.  For instance, a segment that isn’t even scripted sets a perfect tone for the evening when two of the ensemble (Carlson and Baysudee) come out dressed as children in the pre-show moments as the audience is settling in.  The two actors share a crate full of toys, playing with them in traditionally masculine and feminine ways at first - not mixing the tea party and Barbies with the toy soldiers and superhero action figures.  They act up, as children do, and are cleverly reminded by the stage manager (as mom) that we’re approaching curtain time for the main show so they can clean up their toys.  All of this has a background soundtrack of toy commercials for girls and boys - Easy Bake Ovens on the one side, G.I. Joes on the other.  Left behind on the periphery of the playing space in act one are a Hulk and Barbie doll sitting side by side, with a pink plastic tea set nearby.  The two children return at intermission, this time leaving behind only a foam toy football.  Act one is more of a mix of male and female, act two is almost exclusively male.  So the toy markers are a visual clue.

“They continue because they can get away with it.”

The specificity of things like that sit in contrast to a female interviewer returning again and again to get sound bites from a discussion group of men.  We are told at the very beginning of the evening that these men are participating in a program for men who have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes.  You could be forgiven for forgetting this as the night wears on because it’s never directly addressed.  The actors do a great job of maintaining their characters for these sequences separate from the other characters they portray throughout the night.  But the subject of what makes a man think he can (or should) buy the time and body of a woman for sex, regardless of her age, is never tackled.  Some of the sentiments about being a man expressed by these men could be viewed as laudable, but are they just telling their interviewer what she wants to hear?  Should we be taking any advice or insight from these men?

“I suffer from what I call ‘kitchen cupboard blindness.’”

Considering the source is something that undergirds a lot of the material.  In addition to the johns, we also have men in prison, and a whole host of men whose fathers were distant, absent, abusive, or reinforcing old standards like boys don’t cry or show emotion.  Well-grounded fatherly advice is so rare that the one or two times it finally appeared, the audience applauded.  Female characters frequently serve to either shoulder the responsibility men forsake, or endure their unwanted sexual advances and assaults (or both).

“Silence from bystanders is a form of consent.”

A sequence that brought the imbalance of the production into sharp relief for me was set at a frat party where a woman and a man were offering dueling intertwined monologues.  The woman was offering advice on how not to end up getting raped at a college party.  The guy was offering advice on how to get laid (mostly by getting a girl drunk or high first).  A lot of the time outside of this sequence, male characters at least professed to wanting to be better men than they were, better men than their fathers, better men than society expected them to be. 

“I really wish you’d stop having this memory.”

And while the attempt to include some queer content was certainly a welcome impulse, the two interconnected gay monologues at the top of act two were competing tales of closeted midwestern indignities that just piled onto the long litany of sad homo stories out there.  And the words of trans men being put the mouths of cisgendered men was just… awkward.  Honestly, a dose of genuine bisexuality or even gender-fluidity might have broken down a whole lot of barriers in this play but apparently they didn’t hear from anyone on that spectrum that were worth including.

“It’s amazing to me how brave young men can be.”

There’s also a kind of play within the play in the second act which is a not-quite detour from the subject of masculinity where it turns to focus a while on men who serve in the military, across time from World War II to Vietnam to the various present day wars in the Middle East.  And if men don’t know what to do with the conflicting and often harmful dictates from larger society about what their basic role is in the world, bringing the battle home with you, and bottling it up just adds to the pressure cooker of feeling you’ve failed to live up to expectations.

“You spend a lot of time apologizing as a veteran.  You apologize for it all.”

So, does anyone connected to this production know any well-adjusted straight men?  I’m assuming they exist.  (In fact, I know a few.  At least a few.). Yes, a fair cross-section of the male of the species living in our country is, has been, or will be horrifying to contemplate.  Absolutely.  Fair point.  Do we need two-plus hours of that being laid out for us?  Aren’t we all well aware at this point, from the White House on down, of the quicksand we’re swimming in?  The phrase “toxic masculinity” is currently redundant, and we’d like to make it less so.  To that end…

“Do you have someone you can talk to?”

Has anyone asked a well-adjusted male acquaintance, “How do you walk through your days and not become a monster?”  Has anyone asked that man’s mother or father or sister or girlfriend or boyfriend or wife or husband, “How did you raise your son/this man not to be a rapist?”  Because we need to figure out how to raise our boys not to be rapists.  We need to teach them somehow that women and girls aren’t objects to be grabbed and taken (or bought) and used and cast aside, any more than those boys themselves would want those things done to them.  Men as a sub-species aren’t a complete, irredeemable dumpster fire.  Shouldn’t we be talking to the good ones and the ones who made them? Because THAT is a really complex and unspoken conversation that we could use more of.  That’s still a battle.  That’s still got all the conflict you could ever want for a story.  Because that is fighting some pretty strong societal headwinds.

“All your liquor store buddies’ll be there in rehab, it’ll be like old home week.”

Those men already exist inside this play.  The son-in-law (Jordan Mitchell) who comes over to his father-in-law’s cabin to suicide-proof the place - post-alcoholism-intervention - so the man will still be alive in the morning when he comes to take him to breakfast and then rehab - that young man, sarcastic but not uncaring, is one of the good ones (scripted by playwright Newkirk).  What’s his story?  All the veterans in the play who are still alive and didn’t take their own lives - they found a way to cope.  How?  The shy nerd in the library (Nolan Henningson, scripted I think by playwright Cooper) who can’t take advantage of a girl who might be interested in taking advantage of him - he hasn’t crossed over to the dark side yet.  What’s his deal, where did he come from?  The boy (Naved Baysudee, later Eric Marinus) who went hunting with his father (Mitchell again) and killed a deer almost in spite of himself but couldn’t bring himself to gut the animal’s corpse - what would a conversation between a father and son about that look like if we didn’t skip over it (scripted by playwright Bonafede)?  Not all men resort to hiring prostitutes when they get lonely - what are their coping mechanisms?

“Inside of these big, scary and dangerous men are frightened little children.”

I realize this is asking the play to be the play I want it to be, rather than addressing the play where it is.  But I don’t think the play in its current form is as necessary or as useful as it wants itself to be.  Because most of the characters in the play (real though they be) are telling us a story, rather than living inside a story, it’s hard for an audience to fully engage emotionally.  It’s hard for the point of it all to land with the appropriate force.  And these actors are giving it all they have, believe me.  They are trying.  But the text is fighting them almost the entire way.

What does masculinity look like when it’s not toxic?  How do we get there?

That’s a play, or series of plays, that we really need right now.  Probably we’ve needed them for a long time.

I’m not saying they’d be easy to do.  They’d probably be hard as hell to write, maybe even harder to perform.

But isn’t that the kind of art worth doing?

Don’t tell me where we are.  Don’t let me wallow in the enormity of the problem.

Tell me where we should be.  Give me some suggestions on how to start the journey.  Then challenge me to get there.

Meanwhile, the Chain Reaction Theatre Project is tackling What Guys Really Want in church basements all around the Twin Cities metro area through March 3, 2019.  You can check out the full list of dates and locations on their website -
3.5 Stars - Good Job Plus

(Photos used in poster art, by Bruce Silcox)

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