Review: ‘Support Group for Men’ by Ellen Fairey at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Given the seemingly endless parade of creeps and pervs we see in the news every day, it might seem surprising that a woman would write a sympathetic play about guys. The kind who think of themselves as average, whose job description doesn’t include saving the world, the kind who don’t make the news, and who’d frankly be embarrassed if they did because they’re in no way ready for their close-up.

L-R: Juan Arturo, Chris Thorn, Scott Aiello, and Ken Robinson in 'Support Group for Men' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.
L-R: Juan Arturo, Chris Thorn, Scott Aiello, and Ken Robinson in ‘Support Group for Men’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.

This summer’s Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia has a few average guys on display. Ellen Fairey, in Support Group for Men (directed at CATF by Courtney Sale), offers us a view of the American male of the species as human—well-meaning, somewhat blind to reality, but with a much bigger heart and a wider variety of personas, orientations, and tastes in clothes (not to mention wigs) than you might expect.

If you’re thinking The Red Green Show’s famous Possum Lodge, well, kinda; but there’s no duct tape, flannel shirts only appear briefly (by accident), plus there’s a lot less fishing.

(There is also a painted baseball bat, and some smokables. More on that later…)

Several members of this support group are cis-gendered—so much so, that the term “cis-gendered” might raise eyebrows. But the play is also set in an apartment where Chicago’s Boystown and Wrigleyville neighborhoods meet. Boystown is the center of Chicago’s LGBTQ community, while Wrigleyville is home to legendary Wrigley Field, and the distinctly macho-oriented sports bar scene on Clark Street. Frat boys and rainbows exist cheek by jowl, so to speak.

The action begins on a Thursday night at Brian’s apartment. Brian, the group’s leader, has made a baseball bat into a talking stick complete with painted bands, seashells, and a tassel. The group has developed a pseudo-ritual by which they conduct these meetings, and although it’s all clearly derived from some slacker’s idea of authenticity, the rites are observed in solemnity and are, of course, utterly hilarious.

There is a method to this goofiness, however, because the placement of Brian’s apartment allows Fairey to use this group as a means of exploring issues of failed relationships, orientation, identification, even choice of dress. There is also a subtle generational dynamic, as the nostalgia for ’70s bands like The Eagles and Led Zeppelin indicate some members of the group are past their glory days, and might find some of the changes in society bewildering, even though they themselves were long-haired freaks back in their prime.

Scott Aiello and Ken Robinson in 'Support Group for Men' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Scott Aiello and Ken Robinson in ‘Support Group for Men’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.

This being Chicago, there is a thriving street scene downstairs; the men, of course, take turns observing and interacting through an open window with the chaos outside. When they witness an assault, all immediately head outside to intervene. The victim, who takes refuge inside, soon joins the meeting and introduces a serious change in their conversation’s direction.

At one point a celebratory pipe appears, and the scene shifts to a truly psychedelic sequence in which lights, projections, and music all take a decidedly twisted turn. We never learn what exactly was in that pipe, but it’s great fun to watch as the Frank Center stage wigs out (almost literally).

As Brian, Chris Thorn exudes the confidence of a single guy whose pad is wired to the gills – Siri is an unacknowledged member of the cast – but there is a certain unsteadiness behind Brian’s swagger. Ken Robinson plays Delano, Brian’s boyhood friend and the only African-American in the group—a fact that leads to some tension. Scott Aiello, as Roger, offers us the stoicism that comes from being a longtime bachelor, whose search for a mate seems pointless. As the newest member of the group, Juan Arturo’s Kevin leavens the proceedings with some truly awesome dance moves – which, especially for the “glory days” crowd, are entirely too hot to be truly “manly.” Rolando Chusan’s Alex rounds out the support group, with perhaps the play’s most challenging questions about identity and appearance.

Scott Aiello and Rolando Chusan in 'Support Group for Men' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Scott Aiello and Rolando Chusan in ‘Support Group for Men’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Two cops steal the show here – Officers Nowak and Caruso (Tom Coiner and Julia Coffey) stop by to interview the group about the assault. What makes their routine here especially comical is the knowledge that Coiner and Coffey are also performing in Wrecked, a show in repertory at the nearby Marinoff Theater. It’s a rare treat to find actors echoing, refracting, and commenting on their performances in two contrasting pieces. Coiner and Coffey join Thorn – who also features prominently in Wrecked – to create some thoroughly enjoyable “inside baseball” moments, and even more opportunities to reflect on how our relationships really work.

David Barber’s set, a modern interior with alley view, is nicely complemented by projections of neighborhood brownstones above the action – and Barber has great fun altering and twisting the projected neighborhood as needed. D. M. Wood complements Barber’s projections with some lighting wizardry of his own, and Sound Designer Victoria Deiorio has found some real gems from what I’m tempted to call the “men’s support group playlist.”

Fairey’s script is episodic in nature, and ends months later on a note of transition, not finality. The effect is distinct from that of a traditional show—a bit like the pilot for a series—but offers its own kind of satisfaction. Given the horrific examples of male behavior we see so often, it’s good to be reminded that some of us are actually worth getting to know.

Running Time:  90 minutes without intermission.

Support Group for Men runs through July 28 at the Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive, Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. For tickets, email the box office at info@catf.org, call 800.999.CATF (2283) and select extension 1, or go online.

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