Playwright Rebecca Gilman’s work has often courted subjects with ripped-from-the-headlines appeal, such as Spinning into Butter‘s take on racism at a small New England college or Boy Gets Girl‘s stalker scenario. Her latest play, The Crowd You’re In With, is no less timely. But at first blush it seems quieter and more understated in its choice of setting and subject matter: a backyard barbeque and a clash between three couples over whether or not to have children. By the end of a taut if laugh-filled 80 minutes, however, this successful comedy, enjoying its world premiere at the Magic Theatre, has uncovered the acute social import and anxieties behind a set of everyday characters and choices.
The play opens on a contemporary American idyll: a sunny Fourth of July afternoon in Chicago, where two thirtysomething white guys, Jasper (T. Edward Webster) and Dan (Kevin Rolston), hover beside a backyard grill in the archetypal pose (and perplexity) of the modern suburban male. Such a scene, including their young wives Melinda (Makela Spielman) and Windsong (Allison Jean White) arranging a table nearby, would seem to contain no more angst than the residual variety implicit in grill time’s spur to primitive masculinity. But there’s already a subtle cornered and concentrated effect in Erik Flatmo’s naturalistic scenic design, with its tiny swath of yard bracketed by the enclosing sharp angles of a two-story duplex and an adjoining high wooden fence. Reproducing Norman Rockwell is not going to prove so easy (if it ever was) in the age of global warming and unending war.
One of the first things we learn is that couple number one Jasper and Melinda, the renters of the apartment whose yard this is are trying to get pregnant. Five months and counting. This has Melinda, especially, nervous. Their friends Dan and Windsong, meanwhile, are already very pregnant, as Windsong’s eight-month bulge makes clear. Dan (a happy and good-natured but also slightly abrasive and unselfconsciously vulgar rock critic) and Windsong (the chipper, emotionally fragile, and determinedly conventional child of hippies) are more or less equally incurious and young beyond their years. Jasper and Melinda, by contrast, seem more mature and clever than their friends and yet, we come to suspect, are very much under the sway of their baby-making example all the same. Jasper (played with nicely measured intelligence and sympathetic earnestness by Webster) seems particularly uneasy with this dynamic.
Enter couple number three: Jasper and Melinda’s landlords and upstairs neighbors, Karen (Lorri Holt) and Tom (Charles Shaw Robinson), a pair of politically active progressive boomers without a baby or any desire for one. The genial but opinionated older couple soon evince a thinly veiled disdain for the crass yuppie ideals of their tenants’ friends and for the very idea of knee-jerk breeding under present social conditions. A final arrival helps stir the pot even more: a slovenly, cheapskate friend and bandmate of Dan’s named Dwight (Chris Yule), with a jaundiced eye on the overbearing culture of middle-class child rearing.
The ensuing tension leads to some very funny dialogue, oozing sarcasm, and slow-dawning insults. Ably helmed by Amy Glazer (who has directed all of Gilman’s work at the Magic) and beautifully brought to life by her thoroughly fine, enjoyable cast, the scenes build with a kind of chemical inevitability to temperatures hotter than the day or the barbeque. The fireworks not only start early this July 4 but also in slyly showing up the repressed violence and bellicosity behind the national picnic and its whole rockets’-red-glare conceit point to a larger, precarious pattern of denial.
Taking place in a single act in real time, The Crowd You’re In With proves a compact, genuinely entertaining, and provoking play. Even as it skirts stereotype, the types themselves are adeptly fleshed out and will resonate for most people with plenty of lived experience. Moreover, Gilman skillfully grounds her characters’ stories and dilemmas in issues of immediate and universal significance. The questions the play raises about them like who is the more selfish given their respective life choices reach down to deeper ones about conformity, consciousness, the meaning of happiness, and the fate of the world we live in.
THE CROWD YOU’RE IN WITH
Through Dec. 9
Wed.Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7 p.m.; $20$45
Fort Mason Center, bldg. D, Marina at Laguna, SF