Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member.
Ellen Fairey’s new play, the bluntly named Support Group For Men, which is now playing at the Goodman Theatre, is a small gem of a play perfect for our time. Against the backdrop of a world that is redefining masculinity and femininity, a world where #metoo has redefined acceptable behavior, a world in which they/them/their can now be singular pronouns, Fairey zeroes in on the titular support group, a weekly gathering of four men to do something most men say is unfamiliar and even uncomfortable to them: honestly discuss their feelings with other men. The result is a play that is as honest as those feelings, and often hilarious as well.
These fairly typical men engage in a ritual that someone correctly calls out as cultural appropriation from Native Americans. They adopt Indian-sounding names (Floating Squirrel, etc.) and gather around a Talking Stick, holding it when it is their turn to speak. It’s silly, really, as most rituals are if you dissect them, but it provides a way for these four disparate men to share their problems and thoughts with each other.
The play takes place in Chicago in a Wrigleyville walkup (perfectly designed by Jack McGaw) belonging to Brian (Ryan Kitley), an aging Apple Store employee. (We are repeatedly told that he is the oldest person in a store predominantly staffed by millennials.) Every Thursday, Brian hosts these gatherings for three friends: Delano (Anthony Irons), his African-American high school friend from Oak Park; Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega), a know-it-all young Puerto Rican man who works with Brian; and Roger (Keith Kupferer), a gruff and judgmental older man whose job includes cleaning The Bean. Into this mix on this particular night comes Alex (Jeff Kurysz), a young man wearing a dress and flaming red wig who has just been beaten bloody by a couple of toughs in the alley below the apartment. His presence (and his unusual appearance) assures that this night will be one that is extremely memorable, perhaps unlike the average weekly meeting.
Director Kimberly Senior (who recently directed Buried Child at Writers Theatre) tackles this complex mixture with a deft touch. Each man is confused about elements in his life (except Brian, whose relationship with his girlfriend is “perfect”), and some of this is very serious, but Senior wisely focuses on the multitudinous comedic aspects of Fairey’s script, letting her actors sell the heavier stuff. And they do, especially Kupferer, whose seemingly stereotypical “Chicago guy” proves to be anything but. He is a lonely, lost man adrift in a world he no longer understands or controls, and Kupferer imbues him with both honor and compassion. Senior’s skill is in turning the other men, especially Delano and Kevin, from one-note characters into multidimensional human beings. Guided by her, Irons, Rivera-Vega, Kurysz and Kitley give excellent performances, as do the two Chicago cops (Sadie’s Rifai and Eric Slater) who arrive to steal a scene or two.
It’s always great to see shows that are set in Chicago and are not afraid to make the city a vital aspect of the show. Fairey, a Chicagoan writer transplanted to Hollywood so she can write for TV shows like “Nurse Jackie,” loves her hometown and the people in it, and this shows in her writing. Long after her success with Graceland in 2010, it’s also wonderful to see her return to theatre, even if it is only temporary. And this play, which premiered at Goodman during its 2016 New Stages Festival, shows that she is still capable of crafting shows that manage to tug some heartstrings while leaving the audience in stitches and characters fully capable of surprising growth. Support Group For Men, which has added recent references since its 2016 version, is a sincere examination of what it means to be a man in this confusing era. In an era when gender and sexuality are suddenly malleable, these men are doing their best to deal with their realities and the realities of our time. They are a pleasure to share ninety minutes with.
Support Group For Men is a Goodman Theatre production now playing at Goodman Theatre, 160 N. Dearborn St, Chicago, until July 29. Performance times may vary; check the website at Goodman Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.