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Theater Review:

"BLUE SURGE" at Goodman Theatre


Rebecca Gilman appears to have been propelled to international celebrity status by the sheer force of her ongoing affiliation with the Goodman Theatre. In 1999, the Chicago-based playwright premiered her racially themed drama, "Spinning Into Butter," there; the following year, her stalker-centered play, "Boy Gets Girl," also landed on the Goodman stage. Now her third Goodman commission, "Blue Surge" (to which Gilman’s $75,000 Prince Prize for Commissioning Original Work was applied) has debuted on the mainstage.

Yet her most compelling, urgent and complex work to date remains "The Glory of Living," a drama about spree killers that premiered in 1996 at Circle Theatre in Forest Park. Virtually unknown at the time, Gilman demonstrated such a profound and bold understanding of the human psyche that I could actually feel the energized words of this extraordinarily insightful writer soaring through every fiber of my body.

But apart from her intense examination of racism in "Spinning Into Butter" (which also suffered from a degree of pat predictability), Gilman’s subsequent Goodman plays seem to be downspiraling into showy vacuity. And even more than her emotionally manipulative "Boy Gets Girl," the preposterously cartoonish "Blue Surge" tests the bounds of credibility.

Now some readers may be quick to say that I’m anxious to knock down Gilman for enjoying such a rapid wave of awards and critical acclaim around the world – that I believe only starving writers’ work is the most noble and truthful. That’s not the case.

In fact, I’m not quite sure what’s happened to Gilman’s writing over the past three years, but I’m worried that her once incisive views of the world have been tamed or simply refashioned for the commercial realm. Whatever the case, I genuinely wish the playwright would step back for a moment and re-evaluate what drives her work and what she aims to achieve.

"Blue Surge" (whose title inexplicably refers to a Duke Ellington song) attempts to tell a story about two vice cops in a small midwestern town and their bungling of an arrest of two "massage parlor" workers. But it digresses into a whiny, cliched rant about how the rich take advantage of the poor. Gilman’s case is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that she considers a police officer (Curt, the main character) to be "poor." Even hotshot scenic designer Walt Spangler didn’t buy that premise. Curt’s spotless kitchen looks bigger than most people’s apartments and would be right at home in any middle-class neighborhood. Plus Curt is so neat and conscientious, he even recycles his beer bottles!

Curt, who really dreams of being a guide on a nature trail, is engaged to Beth – a visual artist who teaches art to children throughout the public school system. While Curt constantly brow-beats Beth for being rich and accuses her of slumming with his "kind" to make herself feel good, at no point does Beth come across as snobbish, phony or even wealthy.

The core of "Blue Surge’s" conflict is Curt’s desire to "help" Sandy, the young hooker he arrests at the massage parlor. The two bond at Curt’s kitchen table by lamenting their miserable childhoods and disastrous home lives. Sandy also helps quiz Curt on the names of leaves. After all, his dream is to become a forest ranger.

But even more ludicrous than this pair’s self-pitying self-absorption is the secondary plot of Curt’s wacky partner, Doug, who shacks up with Heather, the alcoholic hooker he arrested. Doug’s obsession at the moment is anal sex, and that seems to be his only connection to Heather. Gilman’s clever reversals in the end are also thoroughly unbelievable.

Moreover, not only is it appalling that a female playwright has created more humiliating prostitute roles for women, but she also has transformed the male characters into whimpering or panting goofs. Gilman’s most disastrous move, however, is the lack of dimension given to Beth – an intelligent and compassionate character who is unjustly used as Curt’s verbal punching bag. She’s given no words to defend herself.

Besides the fact that the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre is just too darn large for this very intimate play, the elaborate scenery and Michael Philippi’s high-tech fluorescent lighting only magnify "Blue Surge’s" shallownesss.

Robert Falls directs a high-powered cast, whose fine talents are mired by this dehumanizing script. But it is thrilling to see three outstanding actors from Shattered Globe Theatre on the Goodman stage. Joe Forbrich, despite the dramatically problematic nature of his character, endows Curt with a heartbreaking sense of integrity. His performance is the only reason anyone should see this show. Steve Key is saddled with the loony role of Doug – a role that forces one of Chicago’s most explosively gifted actors to perform his first scene in the buff (so obviously thrown in for shock value).

Rebecca Jordan, another immensely talented Shattered Globe stalwart, is getting pigeonholed as the loose woman "type" by the Goodman Theatre. This season, she was cast as a slut in Goodman’s "House" and "Garden." Now she’s a crude call girl (Heather) with a drinking problem. Amy Landecker tries her best to give Beth some sympathetic dimensions. Least effective is Rachel Miner’s Sandy – a role performed at one faux-tough level. Plus Miner had such difficulty controlling her vocal projections for the stage, she nearly lost her voice in the second act.

Somewhere along the way, Gilman lost sight of her true story. Is "Blue Surge" about an incompetent justice system? Is it about entrapment? Is it about morality? Is it about the rich crushing the poor? Or is it about life choices?

This play doesn’t do justice to any of these issues, to the audience or, quite frankly, to the hard-working actors from Shattered Globe Theatre (a respected company known for producing intensely relevant plays).

By choosing tawdry theatrics over a deep exploration of urgent moral dilemmas, Gilman is woefully undermining her capabilities as an important observer of the human condition.•

"Blue Surge" runs through Aug. 5 at the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $29-$45. Call 312-443-3800.

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