In the Buffett usage, the phrase refers to a desirable situation in which someone offering management or investment advice has some of his own money at risk. You also hear it used in the perennial health care debate: Costs continue to rise, the argument goes, because the end user is buffered by insurance and thus does not have enough, well, skin in the game.
That phrase also shot through my mind the other day at the Steppenwolf Theatre, when I was watching Bruce Norris' spectacular "Clybourne Park." I was pondering what was different about this play — a truly formidable piece of Pulitzer Prize-winning writing — from previous works by Norris. In those earlier plays, Norris felt like an outside observer. Of wicked alacrity, for sure. But there was a certain smug superiority implicit in his satiric brilliance, a love of the yuppie takedown, with the writer's presence remaining elusive and invulnerable.
That's all well and good, of course, which is why Steppenwolf premiered so many of his scripts. But in "Clybourne Park," you can't miss Norris himself, even though I suspect this particular writer (who avoids in-person interviews) would prefer to remain absent. This time he can't. His writing is too good. The pain of his characters is too acute. The indictments in the play include himself. As an American writer with deep ties to Chicago, Norris finally has flesh exposed in "Clybourne Park." And the moment you see that, the work soars to an entirely different level.
Norris is just one of three midcareer playwrights who have spent formative years around Chicago, and whose top-tier work can be seen this fall. Norris' "Clybourne Park," John Logan's "Red" at the Goodman Theatre, and Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the vibrator play" (at the Victory Gardens' Biograph) also all benefit from fine productions, each directed by someone (respectively, Amy Morton, Robert Falls and Sandy Shinner) with an intimate connection to the writer's work.
I would try to see all three. All offer exceptional rewards and insights. All are penned by writers with skin in the game.
In Logan's case, that skin underpins the conundrum faced by the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko — when that dark and demanding artist was asked to create murals for a posh New York restaurant in 1958. In the play and his life, Rothko hated the very idea of art being used as decoration. But in this case, the check was big. So he comes up with a justification: His art will ruin everyone's digestion. But that's self-serving claptrap and he knows it. Once you take the money, you take the money.
Clearly, Logan is probing his own feelings about becoming a screenwriter on massive Hollywood blockbusters: He's currently writing the script for the latest James Bond movie. The check for that far surpasses the Rothko commission ($35,000 in 1958). But how will that affect Logan's role — his responsibility — as one of America's most honest playwrights? That's what he is probing. In other words, Logan has skin in the game. And that's why "Red" does not play like a portrait of a tortured artist, written from afar. Instead, it seems that the playwright understands the man about whom he is writing; he feels what Rothko feels. An audience can sense that. It goes a long way toward explaining why "Red" will be one of the most-produced plays in American theater this season.
Most writers penning a play about the early days of the vibrator, wherein this instrument of pleasure was considered to be a purely medical device ideal for the curing of "hysterical" women, would stick with that theme. After all, it's not difficult to spin an evening around the absurdity of Victorian women going to their doctors for an orgasm, without either party knowing what was taking place. Nor is it hard to imagine a scenario where the wife of one of those doctors would start wondering what her husband was doing, and why he was not doing it to her.
Had Ruhl (who grew up on the North Shore) just done that, "In the Next Room" would still have been a success. Maybe more so, commercially speaking. But Ruhl wrote this play shortly after having twins, and a good chunk of her play is not concerned with electronic pleasures but with the anxieties induced in a vibrant new mother by a patriarchal approach to women's health and well-being. The vibrator whirs on naked skin in the next room, and that's a lot of fun for everyone, but Ruhl clearly lives with her leading character right in the front parlor, where the game is life itself.