SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 16, 2019 — Out of all 6 plays presented at this summer’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, 2019 edition, Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men stood out as a most delightful surprise. Its seemingly random yet subtly organized plot was funny and fun. Better yet, it demonstrated an exceptionally deep understanding by the playwright — a woman playwright, no less — about just what it is that makes guys tick. Better yet in this politically puritanical half-decade, if a secretly PC message was embedded in this script, I never detected it.
Support Group for Men: A delightful and insightful comedy about Flyover Country men seeking for the meaning of life
For once, the opening night audience in Shepherdstown enjoyed a contemporary play that is what it is. Taking place in the Summer of 2017, not long after President Trump moved into the White House, the picaresque plot of Support Group for Men uncoils in the living room of a multi-story Chicago apartment perched atop of a street-level neighborhood bar.
There, a haphazard group of normal if unexceptional Flyover Country men, gather once a week to figure. Their objective: to figure out what the hell is going on with their lives and how to deal with it in this weird decade in which being an American male is defined as un-American. Romances, workplace idiocy and middle age angst come to the surface as these card-carrying members of America’s designated scapegoat gender explore the meaning of life. If there is any.
Not to worry. This play isn’t a textbook for Introspection 101. It’s as funny as hell and rings true in almost every respect. Fairey has an uncanny ear for American lives and customs as they’re actually lived and practiced. (Except in this country’s coastal enclaves where all the better and smarter people live and bloviate.)
Cast of characters
Fairey’s Support Group for Men is led by Brian (Chris Thorn), who believes he’s the oldest dude working in a nearby Apple Store. Unlike some of his compatriots, he’s in a perfect relationship with a hot young babe, which the other gents envy mightily as they should. But you can easily guess what’s going to happen to this or any other “perfect” relationship you encounter today.
As for the rest of the group, Roger (Scott Aiello), who holds a stable but rather menial job, seems mired in gloom. Life just seems to pass him by. Just like the stable binary relationship that’s always evaded him.
Delano (Ken Robinson), the only black man in the group, is not quite sure why he’s there. But he does share his own brand of middle-aged angst with the others. Ditto Kevin (Juan Arturo), the youngest guy in the group. He’s never quite clear about the group’s ritualized communications rules during the group’s weekly amateur shrinkology sessions.
As for those communications rules – they primarily refer to the use of a faux-Indian sharing ritual that invovles passing the sacred, authenitcally (?) decorated bat to whichever participant wishes to speak. Successive bat-holders confess since and complain about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a tremendously funny parody of group therapy sessions. Hot topics include the participants’ generally deplorable lives, their up-again-down-again relationships with the un-fairer sex and the general decline and fall of Western civilization. Or what’s left of it.
When the noise of the drunken kids and roving threatening punks on the street below their gathering place reaches unacceptable decibel levels, the group hurls angry threats out the window to the offending hoi polloi. The punks return the favor with colorful metaphors of their own.
Warm socio-political humor devoid of propaganda
Fairey’s script traverses most of today’s current socio-political, racial and gender issues as they’re debated among a bewildered batch of generally normal guys. Feeling left behind in many ways, they no longer have a clue as to where they stand or where they lost control. Any American male who tunes into the nightly cable TV propaganda fests knows the feeling. Whatever happened to normal?
While the laughs in this play pop up naturally and effortlessly, the topics consistently ping on the sheer idiocy and meaninglessness of this country’s current socio-political scene. And yet, greatly to Fairey’s credit, she handles today’s hot-button socio-political issues deftly. And with surprisingly good-natured humor
Enter: Three disruptive characters
Suddenly, our Support Group for Men is rudely interrupted not once but twice. One invader is a cross-dresser / transgendered young guy named Alex (Rolando Chusan). He’s in a panic, trying to escape from the offending street-level thugs below.
We can tell that the group is uncomfortable with transgender stuff, or anything “weird” for that matter. But Alex confesses he’s not quite sure what kind of social statement he’s actually trying to make, given that he has a girlfriend.
The other outside invaders are a pair of cops – Officer Novak (Tom Coiner) and Officer Caruso (Julia Coffey). They are following up on a complaint. But they’re also looking for the terrified young guy (Alex) the Support Group is secretly hiding elsewhere in the apartment. Both cops eventually take the story in a pair of entirely different directions.
While Fairey’s characters tend to embody certain personality types, they’re considerably more complex. How to cope with America’s current soci-political madness is a very real challenge for them. Which is why they invented their bat-driven bonding ritual in the first place.
Ellen Fairey doesn’t hate men
Ellen Fairey clearly knows a whole lot more about men than many men know about themselves. Better yet, she actually seems to like and appreciate the unfairer sex. And director Courtney Sale knows how this play’s characters move and how the male group dynamic works. Which, in turn contributes to the way she keeps the action moving on stage.
A note about the set
BTW, a special hat tip to the inventiveness of Scenic and Projection designer David Barber. As we noted in an earlier review, Barber also designed the set for My Lord, What a Night. But if you look hard, may recognize a large part as re-deployed in Support Group. Two great, individualistic sets in one.
CATF’s productoin of Support Group for Men is, in fact, a warm, oddly familiar and often moving comedy about the daily crap guys get to deal with. And how they muddle through. It’s sympathetic, empathetic, never condescending and always organically funny in an entirely unforced way. And written and directed by two women. What a concept!
The men in Support Group act like Rust Belt men. They mean well, they do their best, they sometimes screw up, but they’re always trying to be upstanding American citizens, each in his own way. It’s this traditional belief in a free America that’s still embraced, by and large, by the majority of Rust Belt dwellers today as the playwright well knows. As embodied by a cast a cast of truly great actors (and one actress), Fairey’s characters come alive. They seem just like the guys next door, and we’re immediately on their side.
Ellen Fairey – a longtime resident of Chicago before moving to LA – was absolutely spot-on to locate her play in the Windy City. As the largest city in the Rust Belt by far, it serves as a representative focal point for America’s long-neglected Rust Belt states. States long ignored by Hollywood and the media. (Until 2016.)
But Support Group for Men goes against the bi-coastal grain. Its portrayal of the Rust Belt approach to life as recorded by Ellen Fairey takes us back to the future. Back to rediscover a lost America whose neglected denizens are still well worth having around. It’s double-plus good.
Rating: *** ½ (3.5 out of 4 stars)
– Headline image: Juan Arturo, Chris Thorn, Scott Aiello, and Ken Robinson in Ellen Fairey’s
Support Group for Men. Photo credit: Seth Freeman for CATF.
Getting tickets and getting there:
CATF 2019 wraps up the final weekend of July. If you have interest in attending one or more plays, head straight for the festival’s website, CATF online: www.CATF.org. Purchase tickets or full ticket packages right there. Or call the CATF box office at 800.999.CATF (2283).
CATF’s web site also lists dining a wide array of available dining options. Also, directions for getting there and places to stay. Locales are in and around Shepherdstown, which is located in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.