A blazing young ensemble brings its best to the table in this prickly portrait of friends and enmities.
Note: At the Table will get a summer remount at the Den Theatre, June 29–Aug 26.
“Who is me?” is the quirkily-constructed question two relative strangers tease out in a central scene of Michael Perlman’s spiky work, receiving its Chicago premiere in a sharp Broken Nose Theatre production. All of the characters in At the Table, centered on a quartet of college friends now in their early 30s, are wrestling with identity politics and identity, period. Nate (Adam Soule) hosts an annual weekend getaway at his parents’ cabin for pals Stuart (Evan Linder), Elliott (David Weiss) and Lauren (Echaka Agba), with a couple of friends-of-friends invited to join; we see two such retreats a year apart, with supporting cast changes marking shifts among the core group.
The makeup of that group initially suggests a too-schematic approach to the politics that will come into play: Nate, Stuart and Elliott are white, Lauren black; Stuart, Lauren and Nate are straight, Elliott gay. Lauren’s outside friend, Nicholas (Johnard Washington), is a black gay man she intends to set up with Elliott, because they’re both gay and friends with her, so what more could they need? Elliott’s outside friend, Chris (Elise Spoerlein), works for “one of the big women’s rights organizations,” so the play’s opening scene has shit-stirrer Stuart goading her with a spurious argument about abortion rights. (The titular metaphor, referencing who should be allowed “at the table” for discussion of issues that don’t affect them directly, threatens to wear out its welcome within the first five minutes.)
To his credit, though, Perlman doesn’t steer the proceedings in the directions you might expect. What follows is a nuanced, if mildly overstuffed, examination of the apprehensions and insecurities of the American generation caught in the murky boundary between millennial and Gen X. And while Perlman’s script scores some solid points, director Spenser Davis and a sterling cast elevate the material to impressive heights.
In particular, Weiss is effectively annoying as a guy seemingly more committed to his neuroses than to the prospect of happiness, and Agba delivers a stunning blow with the second-act sequence in which she finally recognizes that her friends may not be interested in seeing her as her full self. I’m not sure I buy the dudes’ collective white-privilege heel turn that follows—Perlman reportedly rewrote the denouement post-election for Broken Nose’s production—but this cast sells it with some of the finest storefront ensemble acting in recent memory. Pull up a seat.
Broken Nose Theatre at Berger Park Cultural Center. By Michael Perlman. Directed by Spenser Davis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.