The title of Ellen Farley’s world premiere Support Group for Men at Goodman Theatre is undeniably evocative. Like Steppenwolf’s Straight White Men in 2017, the name alone alludes to the possible derision of that particular sex. Yet instead of relying on laughs from a mocking of masculinity, Farley’s much more accepting play finds humor in the disparities, whether political or social, among its group of men, creating a humorous, heartfelt, and warm-hearted 90 minutes.
That’s not to suggest that Farley strays away from all stereotypes. There are plenty of gender-related jokes that rely on cliches such as men’s supposed lack of emotions, but these are very clearly tongue in cheek. Where Farley finds humor instead is in the making light of a number of issues--a task which some might find diminishing (and there were a few moments for me that certainly straddled the line)--and her ability to make audiences laugh about challenging topics, to explore the characters’ differing opinions and ideas without polarizing censure, was overall refreshing and surprisingly hopeful.
The action begins as four men, Delano (Anthony Irons), Brian (Ryan Kitley), Roger (Keith Kupferer), and Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega), gather for their weekly support group, a night regulated by a homemade talking stick (aka a bat complete with puka shells) and topped off with a few bottles of rose. While the chatter remains strictly surface level at the beginning, the conversation eventually evolves into deeper topics, and this is where the play, for a bit, takes off. Though the characters have dramatically differing personalities and ideas, they manage to find a mutual connection throughout the night, even when an alley fight outside Brian’s north-side Chicago apartment changes the group dynamics.
Where the play script begins to falter is in its final act; following a hilarious scene (thanks, in part, to Rivera-Vega’s infectious energy) where the characters tap into Brian’s girlfriend’s drug stash, the play becomes a bit choppy. Previously, the action had taken place almost entirely in real time, and the abrupt scenes that make up the play’s conclusion can’t recapture the right comedic or emotional flow.
Despite the slightly-too-contrived ending, the other elements make up for these pitfalls. With a slew of wonderful performances, a spot-on Chicago-apartment set (compliments of scenic designer Jack Magaw), and a witty and warm 90 minutes, Support Group for Men might just be the show of the summer.
Review by Emily Schmidt
Support Group for Men continues at Goodman Theatre through July 29. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round Up.
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