Dramas seem tailor made for screen, and that's problematic

One of the downsides of our ascendant era of writerly TV drama — wherein networks are constantly luring away playwrights with big checks — is that new plays by young authors now often feel more like spec treatments or screenplays than juicy dramas for the stage. It feels like a new style is emerging from our leading MFA playwriting programs: intense personal traumas play out, in multiple locales, against the simmering and intellectually high-end backdrop of some broader societal malaise. It's all feeling a lot like a "Mad Men" episode, and it's in danger of becoming a formula.

In Janine Nabers' "Annie Bosh is Missing," one of three intriguing, emergent new works at the Steppenwolf Theatre's First Look Repertory of New Work, which I saw in a marathon three-show day on Saturday, the backstage crew keeps having to wheel out a little car unit, since Nabers has scenes with one character driving. Other crucial moments in the play, about the struggles of a recovering young drug addict who has returned to her affluent Houston, Texas, home, demons intact (including memories of how Houston treated the New Orleans refugees of Hurricane Katrina), are set in a bowling alley. The climax is set, very specifically, in a car parked in the Houston parking lot of the theme park known as AstroWorld. Meanwhile, Aaron Carter's "The Gospel of Franklin," the story of an churchgoing African-American man who has set himself up, to the chagrin of his own son, as "the patron saint of broken-down white boys," takes us everywhere from a factory assembly line to the Chicago sports bar known as Crew, via any number of specific exterior and interior spots.

Now while on TV you might learn plenty about Don Draper and his unbuckled kids in their automobile, or enjoy the thrill of the maniacal Dexter speeding on his boat, rare is the hit stage play with scenes in a vehicle ("How I Learned to Drive" notwithstanding). Think about Pulitzer winners: "August: Osage County," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "Clybourne Park." These plays involve a wide-open, sustained space in which people can rip each other into pieces. Neither characters nor ideas (nor, for that matter, the craft of the actor) are served in the theater by a slew of short filmic scenes, not unless they are woven, as in the musical "Once," into a cogent theatrical frame.

"Annie Bosh," directed by Shade Murray, and "The Gospel of Franklin," directed by Robert O'Hara, both have yet to find such a workable theatrical metaphor, but they also reveal some real strengths. Not only is Nabers' central character (played by Caroline Neff with a potent mix of bravado and pain) very moving and involving, but this writer has penned a couple of beautiful scenes, most notably one in which a post-rehab Annie meets up with a old friend, Kims (the wonderful Brittany Burch), from her hard-partying days. It's a gorgeous piece of writing that perfectly captures the alienation one feels when the life of a former comrade has moved in a new direction — to whom one now has little to say; one just yearns to turn back the clock. Similarly appealing are scenes with a geeky love interest (played by Ian Paul Custer) and between Annie and her under-written brother (the acerbic David Seeber). But the play needed an antagonist, and in the character of Annie's suffocating mother, Carol (played by Jennifer Avery), Nabers has come up only with a one-note cliche. Carol is very much a product of Houston, which always seems to suck in plays.

Those detours to the obvious can be fixed. The more pressing issue is to find the play, and a way to let it breathe, within the extant teleplay.

Carter is on to something very interesting with his titular character, played by Gavin Lawrence, who is very solid but only scratches the surface of what an actor might be able to do after more focused rewrites. In its most interesting and gutsy spots, "Franklin" ponders the perils of being a mentor and a mentee. The mentee worries if his mentor really is benign (indeed, is any mentor truly unselfish?), and the mentor worries that honest compassion always risks being misconstrued. And whither the mentor's own kids? Is it easier to be nice to the children of others? Especially in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky affair and other such wrenching scandals, this is a topic well worth exploring. The play, which is at its best when raw, also had my mind thinking about evangelism: How unselfish is that act?

At this juncture, Carter gets at Franklin through his son, William (Julian Parker), a kind of authorial voice and unreliable narrator. That works to a point, although when William at one point said "this scene never happened," I found myself mouthing the question, "Then why did I just waste time watching it?" That feeling came, I think, from the sense that Franklin and his acts with others are what matters here and the rest is less important. Let Franklin travel a little less, I say, and let us peer a little deeper inside his soul.

That leaves us with "Buena Vista," the only one of these three plays that really feels like a work explicitly for the theater. Penned by Edith Freni, "Buena Vista" is what many would think of as classic Steppenwolf, Sam Shepard branch.

A young man, played by Luigi Sottile, arrives at a remote cabin after running away from something. He wants to reunite with his girlfriend (Leah Karpel) but the man's mother (Karen Vaccaro, making a welcome return to Steppenwolf after years away), a hoarder, is stuffed into a chair. Meanwhile the man's father (played by Rich Komenich) has his own agenda with these confused young people. There's a touch of Stephen King to the proceedings, a hefty chunk of "Buried Child," a touch of "Night Mother," a sliver of "The Homecoming" and, for sure, a surfeit of old-fashioned nasty theatrical juice.

The problem at this early stage (all these plays are likely to be developed further; they were staged here in front of representatives from a slew of national theaters) is that the central young guy feels callow and annoying — to the point where we don't feel enough when his happiness is threatened by his wretched relatives. That is partly an actor problem here, and it's partly an issue in the writing. But "Buena Vista," which is well-directed by Tim Hopper and features a blistering little performance from Karpel, has gobs of potential and is already well worth seeing. It feels like an intense parody of how your parents, to paraphrase the great poet Philip Larkin, inevitably screw you up.


Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Aug. 25, in repertory

Where: Steppenwolf Garage, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $20 each (or $45 for all three plays) at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

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