Review: `The Crowd You’re in With’

Nov 20

Opened Nov. 17, 2007 at the Magic Theatre

Gilman’s Crowd stands out
Four stars Pleasingly provocative

There aren’t many plays, especially new plays, that stick with you days after seeing them.

Rebecca Gilman’s The Crowd You’re in With, which had its world premiere last weekend at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, is, in many ways, an astonishing play.

It seems so simple and so casual at first. A Chicago couple, Jasper (T. Edward Webster) and his wife, Melinda (Makela Speilman) are hosting a Fourth of July barbecue in the backyard of their building.

Their friends — another married couple, Dan (Kevin Rolston) and Windsong (Allison Jean White), and a single dude, Dwight (Chris Yule) — are coming, as are their older, upstairs neighbors, Karen (Lorri Holt) and Tom (Charles Shaw Robinson), who also happen to be their landlords.

The set, by Erik Flatmo, is your basic backyard: backdoor, stairs, grass, table, chairs, barbecue, etc. The play Proof could take place on this set. It looks real, and that’s key: Gilman is giving us a slice of life, and the more realistic the better.

Jasper and Melinda have been trying for a few months to get pregnant with no luck. Windsong, on the other hand, is in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The child status of the couples is important, because when Tom and Karen arrive (and while Karen makes what appears to be a delicious, fruity sangria with blueberries), we learn that this older couple, both of whom came together after unsuccessful first marriages, decided not to have children.

When the younger couples balk at their choice and imply that their decision is a selfish one, Karen’s calm defense belies the fact that she’s had to go down this road more than a few times. “It’s not like we’re bad people because we don’t want to procreate,’’ she says.

The tone of the cheerful barbecue quickly changes to one of unease and discomfort, especially when the older couple dons the landlord mantle and basically says to Jasper and Melinda that if they have a baby, they have to find another place to live.

The arrival of Dwight (Yule, above) — complete with cheap beer and a slacker attitude — lightens the mood somewhat. His showpiece is a monologue about what it’s like to be a waiter in a fairly nice restaurant when families with young children come in. It’s a great moment, and the mere mention of the word “Cheerios’’ brings a knowing chuckle from the audience.

When the barbecue breaks up, Gilman, paired up for the fourth time with director Amy Glazer, doing some of her best, most detailed work here, gets down to the meat of her drama. Jasper has been well and truly thrown by the afternoon’s events, and as night falls (Kurt Landisman’s transitioning, dusky lighting is gorgeous), he finds himself pondering all of his life’s choices.

Jasper is a bright, somewhat quiet man, and he admits that the idea of living an unexamined life is repellent to him. So he begins examining. Why are Dan, Dwight and Windsong — intelligent enough people but not really astute — his friends? Does he really want to have a child with Melinda? Does he even love her?

The older couple, having left the party when they sensed that their childlessness (“And our bad personalities,’’ as Karen puts it) were ruining the party, return to apologize, and the play deepens into something completely captivating and heartfelt.

Holt (above, with Webster) and Robinson, two veteran local actors, are incredibly good at maneuvering their prickly characters and imbuing them with warmth and intelligence. And Webster rises to their level.

In fact, all of the performances under Glazer’s direction are superb, and the play’s brief 75 minutes fly by but never feel rushed.

In some of her previous plays, Gilman has been sort of a finger-wagger, stirring up issues and hectoring her audience. With The Crowd You’re in With, she gives her audience a jolt, but it’s more like she wants to knock us out of our big, fat American apathy and think — really think — about the choices we make in our lives and why we make them.

The Crowd You’re in With continues through Dec. 9 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.

One comment

  1. I so agree with your review! I’m still thinking about it. Could it be there’s actual wisdom in a play? I’d actually like to see it again.

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