STEPPENWOLF THEATRE, CHICAGO
Playwright Bruce Norris certainly knows how to push our buttons. The Norris play that the Steppenwolf premiered last year around this time, “The Pain and the Itch,” has really stuck in my mind. I think Norris may have pushed things too far with the use of child actresses in a play that discussed some disturbing topics including abuse. (The producers said the children were shielded from that, but it still made you feel queasy.) In any case, it was undeniably a work of disturbing power.
His new play, “The Unmentionables,” also disturbs. Without giving away too much, I’ll say that the audience eventually finds itself hearing some very unsettling offstage violence.
I was not entirely convinced by the reality of the play’s African setting (it’s one of those stories set in an anonymous country), but I think Norris got the essential details right, as far as the odd version multinational-corporate colonialism and corruption that seems to be endemic in Africa these days. (I’m no expert, but just watch the movie “Darwin’s Nightmare” for a real-life version of what Norris is referring to here…)
In these last two plays, Norris seems to be passing moral judgments on his characters, especially scorning white upper-class Americans. But he doesn’t cast good and evil in simple black-and-white terms. Just about everyone in this story, from the Christian do-gooders and the rich executives to the local black politicians, is compromised in some way by the end.
Amy Morton gives a brilliantly entertaining performance as the gabby Nancy – a character that initially seems a little too cartoony, but eventually comes to seem pretty real, even if she is ludicrous.
“The Unmentionables” is also notable for the way it breaks down the wall between the audience and the actors. Jon Hill, playing a young African man who comes under suspicion for crimes, abruptly begins the play by speaking directly the audience and warning that the play isn’t any good. He suggests going home to watch TV instead. The play ends with a similar monologue by Hill’s character, Etienne.
Is Norris trying to undercut the worth of his own play? Actually, these little monologues by Etienne reinforce one of the points that Norris seems to be making, that we need to listen to people like Etienne rather than lecturing them. So is “The Unmentionables” a lecture of the very sort Norris is criticizing … or a plea for an end to such lectures? That paradox may be part of Norris’ intentions.
In any case, I think “The Unmentionables” is another significant play by Norris, and one that’s well worth seeing.