Six friends sit around a table, in a weekend home outside Chicago. The table is covered with the detritus of dinner. Wine glasses are filled and emptied. Several conversations are going on at once, but soon the essence of the play surfaces. Stuart (Evan Linder) states his opinions about abortion and despite many interruptions, pontificates that at some point in the future, science might determine that a fetus feels pain and that life begins at conception. (He also compares that possibility to a peculiar point of view about slavery.)
This results in horrified reactions by some of his friends. Chris (Elise Spoerlein) objects vigorously. Men have no part in the conversation about abortion. “It’s not your bodies, not your l lives,” she says. “The terms of a conversation are controlled by who is invited to the table. And you’re not invited to that particular table.”
That exchange gives a hint of what’s to come at Broken Nose Theatre in At the Table, an example of great Chicago theater. It’s an updated version of Michael Perlman’s 2015 play, directed by Spenser Davis.
Wine consumption continues and is enhanced by pot. But for most of the first act, the six friends (actually four old friends and two new ones) carry on a lively conversation, play guessing games with bets involved, with interruptions and people talking over each other. (Smartphones are stowed in a basket, according to house rules. No internet, no Facebook, no texting.)
The group seems diverse. Nate, the host (Adam Soule) and Stuart are straight white guys; Elliot (David Weiss) is white and gay; Lauren (Echaka Agba) is African-American and Stuart is her boyfriend. The two guests are Chris, a white female, and Nicholas (Johnard Washington), a gay African-American.
Lauren invited Nicholas because she thought he and Elliott might be a good match—because they’re both gay and both her friends. That turned out not to be the case, but Nicholas and Elliott have a heartfelt conversation about their lives (one of the better scenes in act one).
Throughout the first act of At the Table, I kept thinking of The Big Chill, the 1983 Lawrence Kasdan film about a group of 30-somethings who get together for a weekend. Similar situation. Similar rueful reminiscences. And I was thinking, well, this is clever and there are a few hints of contemporary angst and identity issues here, but something is missing.
But scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.
Now it’s Saturday morning in the country. Nicholas and Lauren have a heated exchange about Lauren being a caretaker for her friends. “You should stop taking care of these white people,” he says. “Cleaning up after them, and making them food and doing their dishes …. You’re their mammy, not a friend,” he says. Lauren argues with him and their conversation proceeds to who sits at the table where black people are “figuring out how to survive, literally. How to not get shot at. And how to love ourselves in the midst of hatred.” Nicholas is frustrated and leaves.
Act two takes place a year later. The couples have reconfigured. Stuart has a new girlfriend, a half Asian, half Caucasian woman named Sophie (Jennifer Cheung). Elliot is with his boyfriend Leif (Benjamin Brownson). Nate and Chris are a couple. They’re playing Cards Against Humanity, which soon devolves into a discussion of ethnic identity. Sophie’s in particular. No, she wasn’t adopted. And she’s one-quarter Jewish.
Lauren, Chris and Sophie have a conversation in which they agree they get to say, “Back the fuck off!” when needed, especially to guys. The Bechdel test is discussed. (In a work of fiction, can two women have a discussion about something other than men?)
Lauren’s moving monologue makes up the jarring heart of the play. It changes the way the characters respond to each other and the way the play ends.
At the Table was first produced in 2015 at Fault Line Theater in New York. Broken Nose Theatre staged it in February-March this year. As the director’s note explains in the playbill, in the play’s first version, “The characters argued, jabs were taken … but at the end, they were still a community. It was a hopeful ending and it didn’t work any more.” Playwright Perlman joined the Broken Nose cast in December to rewrite the second act, which addresses issues that have arisen recently such as—who controls the conversation, who is allowed at what discussion table, whose pain comes to the surface as the nation’s political temperature rises. The current revision effectively alters the play and the characters’ relationships in a significant way.
The acting displayed here is terrific and Davis brings them together as an ensemble superbly. Agba is particularly fine as Lauren. Weiss and Linder also stand out as Elliot and Stuart. The great achievement of the director and the ensemble is that they make us feel that we might join this conversation in the future because we have come to care about the characters.
I’ve seen a couple of productions by Broken Nose Theatre. (Their name, by the way, comes from Nelson Algren’s, Chicago, City on the Make: “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”) My favorite was several years ago during their first season when they staged Rooms: A Rock Romance with plenty of live musical accompaniment.
At the Table runs 2.5 hours with one intermission. See it through August 26 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., with performances Wednesday-Sunday. Broken Nose is a pay-what-you-can operation, but reserving tickets in advance is advisable.