Sometimes, watching a play, I get the distinct feeling that the playwright is just trying too hard. Often, this manifests itself in stilted dialogue or in overly cheesy scenes; these are easy to notice and easy to describe. But what is wrong with Clare Barron’s You Got Older is much more complicated. In a well-acted production now at the Steppenwolf Theatre, the play simply fails to engage despite having all sorts of ingredients that ought to make it engaging: father with cancer, struggling daughter trying to handle this, fantasy sequences, symbolism, etc. Unfortunately, in this case the whole is not better than the sum of its parts.
First I have to say that I’m usually a sucker for dying parent plays. Having lost my own mother just two years ago, I understand this pain acutely. I’m also a fan of unusual play structures; the fantasy sequences here should have been right up my alley. I wanted to like this play, but it just never came together for me. Instead, I felt that I was watching something that just seemed forced.
You Got Older centers on a young lawyer, Mae, who is having the worst of months. She broke up with her long-term boyfriend. He was also her boss, so she lost her job. And (of course) Dad has cancer. You can excuse Mae for feeling utterly lost. And if the play had focused itself tightly on the relationship between its two main characters without delving into elements that seem to belong in a different play, it could have been very powerful indeed. I’d gladly have watched two hours of Mae and her father. They are both powerful creations, and as acted by Caroline Neff and Francis Guinan, they are both also very likable. Barron, however, has other notions. She wants to make a much bigger statement, but the bottom line is that she just keeps adding elements without really connecting them.
The key additional element is the fantasies: Mae finds herself imagining a cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) who has saved her life but now has little patience with her. In her fantasies, he goes from being a stoic rescuer to an object of desire to a guy who would tie her up (ostensibly to keep her safe) and then have passionless sex with her. It’s clear that these sequences are the products of a “lost” mind, but it is less clear why they are needed in the first place. If it is merely to show how screwed up she is, her sort-of relationship with Mac (a very genial Glen Davis), a man she met in a bar, seems to have that market cornered. Mac is another very likable character, unlike the hardened cowboy. And the two scenes she has with him (one in the bar, one in her bedroom) show her confusion at this moment in her life beyond the shadow of a doubt. The cowboy seems a symbol of her lack of self-worth, but we actually get that through Mac anyway.
Somewhere in there we also get to meet Mae’s siblings in an Act One-capping scene in Dad’s hospital room. Jenny (Emjoy Gavino) is self-absorbed with the exuberance of youth. Matt (David Lind) tries to remain stoic, but ends up obsessed by the food they have brought. And Hannah (Audrey Francis) is constantly distracted by her family at home. Like Mae, she has other things to focus on. Unlike Mae, she still has a life. This leaves Mae as the one sibling who is really there for Dad.
Guinan’s father is a wonderful character. Nearing the end of his life, he spends as much time as possible worrying about the uncertain state of his daughter’s life. In the very first scene, he is showing her the peppers he has grown, emblematic of patience, personal care, and commitment. He wants her to find the same for herself. When she tells him she has a Skype interview for a new job, his response is that she should fly out to Minneapolis instead: the face to face touch is what is needed, even as her personal life has crumbled. Guinan is warm and sympathetic: the perfect caring father.
Neff is absolutely outstanding. Instantly likable, she imbues her character with precisely the right combination of emotions: fear and love for her father, pain for her own moment in life, lust for the sex she is missing out on in her lonely state, confusion about how she is supposed to handle all of this. While Mae remains broken, a shell of a woman seeking some way to fill herself back up, Neff’s performance makes us care for her.
The problem with all of this is it simply never all comes together. Barron said that “it’s a bunch of randomness, weird ideas, dreams that come to me, and then some formal shaping that create a kind of patchwork quilt that is the play.” For me, at least, it all remained far too much a patchwork. Even the set design seemed intended to keep the disparate elements apart from each other: we are in Dad’s back yard, but bedrooms and bar scenes and hospital rooms slide in when needed while the main setting remains intact. Perhaps it is supposed to blend it all together; for me, especially with the fantasy elements, it created a bizarre overlap of spaces that seemed as unsettled as Mae herself.
Director Jonathan Berry tries to make all of this work by creating intimate moments when Mae is confronted by her powerfully conflicted emotions. With Mac, she wants desperately to be present for him and to have sex—this need is clear throughout the play—but she is also torn by her desire to be there for her father. With Dad, she wants to focus on him because of the circumstances, but her own muddled life keeps getting in the way. Berry makes each of these small moments come alive, and he shows in the hospital scene that each sibling has outside matters on their minds beyond Dad’s illness. But it just all seems, to use Barron’s word, random.
Reading this over, I realize that I might have used many of these elements to write a positive review of a play that successfully created a kind of montage of life. But I can’t: the montage is there, but it never came together for me. In the end, instead of feeling something powerful, I felt as empty as Mae feels throughout much of the play, and that is not, I think, what Barron intended.