Steep Theatre Company has made a habit of making meals out of Brit playwright Simon Stephens's work. Motortown
marks the third time in recent seasons that director Robin Witt has helmed a U.S. premiere of a piece by Stephens, following 2010's Harper Regan
and 2011's Pornography
Those two plays, as well as those Stephens works that have been staged by the playwright's other Chicago champion, Griffin Theatre Company, have all come across as both distinctively English and accessibly universal. Motortown
, which was written in a concentrated burst over four days in July 2005 as London won its bid for the 2012 Olympics and endured the 7/7 Underground bombings, feels rather undefinably more foreign, despite a passel of persuasive performances.
Chief among those is Joel Reitsma as the play's central character, an Army "squaddie" from Essex who's newly returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Reitsma's Danny is making a failing effort to hide the unknowable emotional damage incurred in what he did and what he saw in Basra. As Danny discovers the ex-girlfriend he fantasized about reuniting with has moved on, and sees a Britain that doesn't seem to match the values he'd convinced himself he was fighting for, the young soldier becomes more unstable with every scene.
Reitsma's performance is impeccably controlled, simultaneously both mesmerizing and repellent. You don't want to take your eyes away from him, but you're afraid of what you'll see if you don't. It's a remarkable achievement, one that's matched by much of the supporting cast he encounters in Stephens's succession of two– and three-actor scenes.
And yet these set-ups—which match Danny with his possibly developmentally disabled brother (Chris Chmelik), an angry ex-girlfriend (Julia Siple), a mysterious crime boss (Peter Moore) and his teenage companion (Ashley LaThrop), and a swinging couple at a hotel bar (Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor)—feel forced if not outright false. What Stephens intends to say about the horrors of war, our treatment of our soldiers or societal excess remains obscured. Reitsma's performance deserves to be reckoned with, but Motortown isn't Stephens's finest.