Where: Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through July 29
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Ellen Fairey’s “Support Group for Men” at Goodman Theatre begins with four guys gathered for their weekly Thursday night meeting at a North Side apartment joking about the fact that they’re drinking “pink wine” (rosé).
I was worried.
Even though I’d heard the play was well-received at Goodman’s New Stages Festival in 2016 and Fairey had a hit with “Graceland” a decade ago, she has since spent much of her time writing for tv shows (“Nurse Jackie,” “Masters of Sex,” “The Sinner). The comic-ironic set up, based on cultural appropriation that’s supposed to be amusing as well as satirical, didn’t alleviate my doubts, nor did the promise of discussions of shifting gender and social roles that have become common fodder for theater nowadays.
In addition, the specificity of the script peppered with local places and events made me wonder about its staying power. The apartment, designed with admirable detail by Jack Magaw, is on the murky border between Wrigleyville and Boystown, giving rise to confrontations between frat boys and gays in the alley below, causing the men to shout “shut up” out the window. One character works cleaning The Bean in Millennium Park and has breakfast every morning at the Golden Apple diner. Some references, like to the gentrification of Wicker Park, already are dated. Others, for example an allusion to #MeToo obviously added since the 2016 election, probably are destined to become so.
Indeed, for the first half (or so) of its 90 intermission-free minutes “Support Group” seems to be a sitcom on life support that doesn’t go much of anywhere. We learn the rules and rituals of the meeting. The men, who have taken Native American names, each get to express their concerns and feelings but only when they’re holding the “talking stick,” a decorated baseball bat. They cannot comment or give each other advice and, after each has finished, all thump their chests in approbation.
We also meet the diverse participants, all of whom have some connection to Brian (Ryan Kitley), who lives in the apartment, is self-assured enough to have organized the group, at 51 is the oldest person working at the Apple Store, and claims to have an ideal relationship with a girlfriend 20 years his junior. Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega), his much-younger Puerto Rican coworker and a salsa fanatic, is happy to tag along and give these older guys tips on the mysteries of Millennials. Delano (Anthony Irons), Brian’s friend from high school and the only married one, lives in Oak Park and comes to escape his beloved wife’s problems, though to his irritation he suspects Brian thinks of him as his black friend. Finally, Roger (Keith Kupferer) is The Bean cleaner who met Brian at the softball league he joined out of loneliness. A gruff curmudgeon, he epitomizes an ordinary Chicago guy who struggles to take the proceedings seriously when he’s not yelling out the window.
After a few instances of rather predictable sharing and venting, I was getting bored, but then Fairey changes things up. The men witness a violent altercation in the alley involving two men and a red-headed woman. Police officers Caruso (Sadieh Rifai) and Nowak (Eric Slater) show up at the door to take a report. And after they leave, the wounded “woman,” who turns out to be Alex (Jeff Kurysz) in female clothing and a red wig, pops out of the closet.
How the men react to the interloper and what follows become a poignant, sweet story about Roger overcoming his fears of mortality to face his loneliness and begin to care about others. There’s also fallout for Brian, Delano, and even Kevin, the only one not challenged by Alex’s approach to gender, as well as for the police officers. But the focus clearly is Roger, and Kupferer gives an outstanding performance as a guy’s guy who starts out befuddled, clueless, resentful, and frightened and learns to adjust to the rapidly changing world around him.
In fact, the entire cast is terrific, and under Kimberly Senior’s canny direction, the actors craft believable characters we care about, sometimes with a few swift strokes. Fairey’s vision is so warm, inclusive, and positive that we can’ help but be won over. Somewhere along the way “Support Group for Men” morphs from a trivial summertime comedy into an optimist’s insightful commentary on contemporary life.