Goodman and Steppenwolf, Or, Crowning a Theatrical King

Yesterday I posted a quote on my Tumblr discussing “What Would Be America’s National Theatre?” and then proceeded to say, “The Goodman Theatre is not better than Steppenwolf. Also, Chinglish was overrated.”

Then I got some positive remarks on Twitter and angry emails from various people. Mostly because I said Chinglish was overrated and referred to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as THE GREATEST PRODUCTION OF OUR TIME.

Here’s an elaboration to my post because that post was on Tumblr and I like to be concise there.

At Steppenwolf I’ve seen American Buffalo, A Parallelogram, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Sex With Strangers, The Hot L Baltimore and Middletown, as well as seeing the National Tour of August: Osage County. Meanwhile, I’ve seen Animal Crackers, Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape, The Seagull and Chinglish, which I managed to see right before everyone in Chicago acted like it was THE GREATEST NEW PLAY OF OUR TIME, tickets sold out and it was going transfer to Broadway. I have seen two plays at Steppenwolf I’ve been disappointed by (Sex With Strangers and The Hot L Baltimore) and only one play at Goodman I really enjoyed (Animal Crackers), and even that had problems.

A typical season at Steppenwolf looks like “We present a classic play or two, some new works, and some plays getting their Chicago premiere.” A typical season at Goodman tends to be “A big musical, some new works, a classic play, a classic play with a crazy concept by Robert Falls, their artistic director; maybe a Chicago premiere, and a show we will hype the shit out of.” Steppenwolf’s current season includes Clybourne Park (Chicago premiere), Penelope (Chicago premiere), Time Stands Still (Chicago premiere), The March (new work), and Three Sisters (Classic, but a world premiere adaptation by Tracy Letts). Goodman’s current season consists of Red (show we will hype the shit out of, Chicago premiere), Race (Chicago premiere), Camino Real (classic play), The Convert (new work), The Iceman Cometh (classic play that will probably have a crazy concept by Robert Falls), Fish Men (new work) and Crowns (big musical).

Goodman is the company that produces the most amount of plays. Even if I had counted the Steppenwolf for Young Adults productions, it might not have exceeded that number of productions. However, Goodman has really short runs for their plays compared to Steppenwolf.

It’s always struck me that Steppenwolf is more daring than the Goodman with their season programming. They’ve stood by Bruce Norris—who wrote their current show, Clybourne Park, which won a Pulitzer—and developed his work. They let Tracy Letts write a three-and-a-half hour long play about family strife that requires thirteen actors and then produced it. They did Middletown, which is the only Steppenwolf production I’ve seen that didn’t have a large audience at the performances I went to.

But people tend to claim the Goodman is the king of Chicago theater. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune declared it as the flagship of Chicago theater in a piece where he said he lies awake at night thinking about the Goodman’s production of A True History of the Johnstown Flood. The piece I mentioned on Tumblr tries to claim it. If the Goodman was more daring with their programming, I’d be willing to accept this.

In the emails I received, people tried to say that Chinglish was edgy and daring. I disagree because a lot of the jokes, although funny, were jokes I could have come up with my friends in ninth grade. And we would have told them in basic German. Having interned in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, I’m not only familiar with the differences between English and Chinese, but also the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin and that a Cantonese translator isn’t helpful when you need a Mandarin translator. Sure, I found Chinglish to be a funny play, but it lacked depth and emotion. To put it simply, they felt like vehicles for the story, not characters. In the show we’re presented ultimately obedient and stern Chinese women who are inept at speaking English. Having worked in Chinatown, I can say that the people who speak broken English speak better English than the characters in the play did. This is ultimately disappointing because the playwright, David Henry Hwang, is Asian-American.

But more importantly, I always feel like the Goodman is alienating me as a potential patron. Steppenwolf has done some poor promotion to students, in my opinion, such as boasting about having $3 PBR at their bar. However, having a giant banner of Amy Morton yelling on the side of a building, using images of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton yelling at each other in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to promote shows, using strong black and white pictures with red and white font, and having a poster of John Mahoney looking adorable are great ways to market to me. Then there’s the Goodman where often their posters are visually uninteresting and they tout actors who have a tendency to ham it up in plays as being the big stars in Eugene O’Neill dramas.

And then there are press pictures and how Goodman tends to portray women in their marketing.

When the Goodman did Desire Under the Elms, they made sure that everyone knew that it would be steamy and Brian Dennehy was in it. If you wanted a sexy play with flying houses, that was your show. Then there is a picture from Chinglish that I keep seeing whenever the media reports on the show. The picture can best be described as actress Jennifer Lim looking sexy and flirty. Which makes it seem like, “If you want a show with jokes about cultural differences and two people of different ethnicities having affairs, this is the show for you!”

But was I upset by Sally Murphy in her underwear for the Sex With Strangers poster? No, because the title is Sex with Strangers. Of course, this is a theater that has a banner on the side of a building that depicts Amy Morton yelling at the end of act two in August: Osage County because Amy Morton is a great actress, the scene is awesome, the picture is terrific and why wouldn’t you put a banner on the side of a building that shows Amy Morton yelling.

The bigger problem always strikes me of how Goodman plays treat women. Sometimes there are great performances from women. Ora Jones and Molly Brennan in Animal Crackers, Mary Beth Fisher in The Seagull*.

Okay, that’s all I’m coming up with.

Yes, Goodman produced Ruined, a play about the sexual violence towards women in the Congo that later won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but I don’t see terrific performances by women in a lot of plays at the Goodman. In fact, Nina in The Seagull felt as if she was reduced to a ragdoll and I’m dubious that Irina would have been a terrific role had Mary Beth Fisher not been in the role. (Note: Francis Guinan stole the show as Sorin.) Meanwhile, in THE GREATEST PRODUCTION OF OUR TIME, Amy Morton managed to find humanity in Martha who can easily be reduced to a heartless monster if an actress goes overboard.

What it comes down to is that the Goodman always feels as if it’s tailor-made for the tourists. They might throw a big star in it, like the upcoming production of The Iceman Cometh that will have Brian Dennehy, Stephen Ouimette and Nathan Lane, for some odd reason. After all, it’s in the Loop, so it’s accessible for the tourists staying in the expensive hotels. In the respect that it’s great for the tourists, yes, Goodman is the theatrical king of Chicago. Perhaps someday the Goodman will do something that is daring—A True History of the Johnstown Flood does not count—but that will not happen this season. Steppenwolf will deliver something that will truly spark a conversation because they always do, even if the show isn’t that great. But just because a company does a lot of star-studded Broadway transfers doesn’t mean they’re great.

*I will honestly see Mary Beth Fisher in anything. Her performance in The Year of Magical Thinking was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. 

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