Every now and then, a play comes along that makes a mark on theater history, a play with a message so profound and impact so great that it alters the way we think about the world. The Crowd You're in With is not that play, though judging by the rapturous response Rebecca Gilman's new work seems to be generating around here, you'd think the playwright were Anton Chekhov in 21st-century female clothing.
That the play has been dubbed "Chekhovian" in three publications I've read in the last couple of weeks (and only one of these instances was in Magic Theatre's program notes) is disquieting. I'm struggling to see the connection between Gilman's bland little drama and masterpieces like The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters beyond the fact that it, like many of Chekhov's plays, takes place in a domestic setting and concerns the hang-ups of a bunch of white, middle-class individuals. The resemblance, as far as I can tell, stops there.
The problem with bandying about the name of a great 19th-century Russian dramatist in conjunction with a work like The Crowd You're in With is that it gives people the erroneous impression that the experience of watching this play will somehow alter the way they think about the world. Indeed, it's easy to be seduced by Gilman's drama — to think we're witnessing great art — because the product is so nicely packaged in Magic Theatre's world premiere. But once you untie the pretty bow and tear off the colorful wrapping paper, Gilman's effort mostly ends up reinforcing stereotypes and stating the obvious.
The Crowd You're in With begins in a festive spirit as Jasper and Melinda, a couple in their early thirties, host a July 4 party in the backyard of their rented Chicago apartment. The ambience is jolly. Melinda and her pregnant friend, Windsong (whose parents were hippies), discuss baby showers. Middle-aged landlords Karen and Tom descend from their upstairs digs to make sangria. Jasper and Windsong's partner, Dan, attempt to ignite the faltering grill with a wad of lit newspaper. Everyone is looking forward to hitting the lake for the annual fireworks display, even though, as Tom puts it, "it's all nationalistic crap."
Like a buffalo wing that's been left on the barbecue for too long, the holiday atmosphere soon becomes carcinogenic. The main catalyst for discomfort is reproduction. Jasper and Melinda want to get pregnant, but have so far had no luck (they've been trying to conceive for several months). Windsong and Dan, seven months on the way to having their first child, are feeling smug. Tom and Karen, meanwhile, decided long ago not to become parents and have never looked back. The younger couples are shocked by the older pair's lack of interest in raising kids. Dan calls them selfish. "It doesn't seem natural to not want children," Windsong chimes in. By the time Dan and Jasper's slacker friend Dwight shows up bearing cheap beer and endearing tactfulness ("Your breasts are huge," he says to Windsong as soon as he arrives), tempers are close to fraying. The characters hash out the "to procreate or not to procreate" debate to its bitter end until Jasper, in particular, is left doubting everything he thought he held most dear.
At some level, the production is entertaining. Director Amy Glazer's fluid staging, Gilman's Seinfeldian knack for capturing the tiny details of quotidian life, and the cast's casual approach make us believe we're watching reality onstage. We laugh when Chris Yule's Dwight recounts his experiences of serving families with small children at the restaurant where he waits tables, from his being asked to heat up Tupperware containers of mush in the microwave for precisely 36 seconds to dodging avalanches of Cheerios. The couples' spats also feel very human. For instance, when the group discusses shifting attitudes toward drinking during pregnancy over the past 30 years, T. Edward Webster's Jasper scoffs at the idea of fetal alcohol syndrome, saying his mother drank throughout her pregnancy. "Why don't I have it?" he asks, referring to the disease. "Who says you don't?" responds Makela Spielman's spiky Melinda with more than a hint of contemptuousness. Meanwhile, when Allison Jean White's Windsong pretends to pick at the fruit in Dan's glass of sangria before hungrily inhaling the leftover booze, Kevin Rolston's Dan barely disguises his displeasure. The down-to-earthness of the scenario is further aided by Erik Flatmo's detailed backyard set design complete with a squeaky-green patch of lawn, back stairs, grill, and deck, and Kurt Landisman's gently softening summer evening lights.
The familiarity of the situation lulls us into a state of coziness. But the sense of shared experience we feel for these urban types ultimately lets down the theater. Very quickly, the characters and their attitudes start to feel like clichés, from the music-infatuated man-child in Converse sneakers (whom Nick Hornby captured so vividly more than a decade ago in his novel High Fidelity) to the pushy thirtysomething woman with a fast-ticking body clock. The play's various random allusions to current political and social issues such as the tax system and the "illegal war" in Iraq seem similarly shallow. Even the urbane references to onesies bearing the Dead Kennedys logo feel tired. Mainstream culture has been appropriating (and bastardizing) counterculture since the beginning of time, so Jasper's exasperation at the offending toddler accessory doesn't strike us as anything new. With the refreshing exception of Karen and Tom (how rare it is to see a childless couple portrayed as being happily childless on stage or screen; Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson go at their parts with buoyant relish), almost everything else in the play washes over us like the pastel hues of a baby's bedroom. Theater thrives on unfamiliarity, so characters, language, and action should be larger than life in order to make a real impact on a live audience. Otherwise we might as well be watching a well-crafted TV sitcom.
In an article about "American Theater's Failure of Nerve" published six months ago in LA Weekly, theater critic Steven Leigh Morris condemns the contemporary stage — and the Pulitzer machine in particular — for failing to embrace unorthodox and uniquely theatrical work while boosting more easily digestible fare. Speaking of last year's Pulitzer winner by David Lindsay-Abaire, Morris writes: "The Rabbit Hole is an emblem of the kind of finely crafted, polished, entertaining, emotionally vivid, mildly thoughtful (but not too heady), palatable, and ultimately forgettable experiences that constitute most new plays on our national stages." I think this description perfectly fits the 80-minute HBO special that is The Crowd You're in With. It's a great pity, because some of Gilman's other plays, most notably The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (which the Magic produced in 2005), give us a pungent taste of the playwright's wide-ranging dramatic imagination.
On second thought, maybe the term "Chekhovian" befits a play as uninspiring as The Crowd You're in With. Associating the drama with the work of another dramatist is as good a way as any to fill in a blank space. After all, it takes a truly memorable work of art to eschew comparison.