The father’s last will lands among his sons like Eris’s apple of discord. They knew it would; despite describing the man as useless and lacking a mean bone in his body due to lacking any bones at all, they’d been avoiding opening it since leaving his funeral. Dad wasn’t a tyrant like Mom (Shariba Rivers), but he was a flake whom they feel varying degrees of guilt over not missing that much. It would be just like him to inflict more scars out of ignorant carelessness. And sure enough, he does. Oldest brother John (Eric Slater) and youngest brother Derek (Christopher Wayland Jones) are responsible and married with children. Yet a disproportionately large amount of money will be going to single, childless, troubled middle son Ryan (Esteban Andres Cruz), who is as baffled by this injustice as they are. He’s not sharing it, though.
Wryness and Warmth go Hand-in-Hand
The dysfunctional family in a property dispute is well-trodden territory in American drama, but playwright Steven Stafford provides something unique to this Midwest premiere: his biting sense of humor. Crucially, Stafford’s wit is not mean. Small Joke about Monsters treats all its characters with empathy for the difficult circumstance it puts them in, Mom included . But Stafford’s willingness to make the characters fully confront their flaws takes them to some very uncomfortable places, and not just because of the dark and explosive secrets that get revealed. Mom describes her current romantic relationship by saying that “life is just a series of days, nothing more, nothing less.” Her matter-of-fact nihilism gets big laughs from the audience, as well as some cringes.
16th Street Theater Closely Knits its Cast
Director Kristina Valada-Viars has, in this writer’s view, perfectly cast this chamber play with four actors who easily adapt to each other’s rhythm. Jones’s youngest brother Derek is pensive and analytical—not all that bright, perhaps, but thoughtful. Slater’s oldest brother John is a live wire; forceful and commanding, but not actually in charge as long as Mom’s around. Cruz’s Ryan describes his sense of humor as like Godzilla, an all-consuming set-piece that is as destructive as it is fantastic. It’s the truth; Ryan constantly refocuses attention onto himself and frequently squanders the goodwill his clever observations build up by saying things that are appalling. But Rivers’s Mom is a tough person to compete with for attention. She’s more comfortable than he is with explicitly playing the victim while seeming less vulnerable. Rivers plays her cool, usually somewhat removed from the center of the stage, and always throwing curveballs. It’s not that she withholds love, it’s that her wisdom simply isn’t helpful.
A Play about a Single Day
The play is only ninety minutes and it zooms along without feeling rushed. It’s completely character-driven, with set designer Eleanor Kahn providing a nice but not swanky rented beach house. Stafford’s script states that the casting can be of any identity, in order to avoid the trap of depicting upper-middle class white people as default Americans or to imply that family dysfunction is unique to them. This production’s casting for personality over physical resemblance serves it well. The brothers take for granted that the amount of money Ryan is getting is significant without hearing a dollar sum, but we soon come to understand their jealousy isn’t really about the money.
Another modern twist Stafford provides is that he doesn’t pretend legacies of abuse and neglect or the maladaptive behaviors people develop in response to them have a clean resolution. New information gets revealed, and the family members understand themselves and each other better. But that doesn’t fix everything between them, or even necessarily put them on the path to fixing things or breaking things off. Life is a series of days, indeed.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Esteban Andres Cruz, Eric Slater, Christopher Wayland Jones, Shariba Rivers
Steven Strafford (playwright), Kristina Valada-Viars (director), Eleanor Kahn (scenic), Barry Bennett (sound), Cat Wilson (lights), Rachel Sypniewski (costumes), Wendye Clarendon (stage manager)
Thursdays & Fridays @ 7:30 PM, Saturdays @ 4:00 & 8:00 PM
Moderated post-show dialogues follow Thursday and Friday performances.
Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.
Plays through February 16.
16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn IL
Free parking one block west in lot at 16th & Gunderson across from Lincoln School
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
Click here to find more Picture This Post articles by Jacob Davis.