The U of C takes center stage in Huff’s Gray City

By Ethan Stanislawski

“Does love stand a chance when living the Life of the Mind?”

So says the tag line of Gray City, a lovely new play at the Peter Jones Gallery in Irving Park. Despite signs of a doomed production—opening night was cancelled due to paint fumes, and there were typos in the program—the show was an absolute joy, thanks largely to strong writing by Keith Huff and remarkable performances by Scott Strangland and Anna Carini.

The play takes place at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, and for U of C students, the constant references to Jimmy’s, W.J.T. Mitchell, the Shoreland, and countless other campus institutions will be exciting to see on stage. The storyline of the play, however, is hardly a typical U of C experience.

The play opens with Mickey (Strangland) sitting alone in Jimmy’s ignoring his beer and waiting for his roommate to meet him. It’s quickly revealed that he’s been had—he’s been set up with his roommate’s girlfriend’s roommate Katie (Carini), who unbeknownst to Mickey is in his French class. An outraged Mickey declares he has no intention of dating, as he’s struggling enough to maintain a high enough GPA to keep his scholarship, and leaves Katie to walk home alone so he can catch a Shoreland bus. In the next scene, we learn that Katie was assaulted by a serial rapist on her way back. When Mickey sheepishly delivers the two weeks of French homework she’s missed, they realize their attraction to each other and begin a yearlong relationship with drama of its own to spare.

One common thread throughout the play is the massive inundation with quotes fit for Self, Culture, and Society but probably beyond the syllabus. Both Mickey and Katie are “That Kids” extraordinaires, and their devotion to Core class ideologies often conflicts with their real-life decisions.

Huff, who dropped out of the U of C in the ’80s and finished his undergraduate work at the main campus of the University of Illinois, said over e-mail that social life in Hyde Park was built around the trauma inherent in a rigorous education. “As undergrads, we formed small, intense, tightly knit circles of friends. We were all floating in the same lifeboat. We reveled in our shared misery and commiserated extravagantly.”

To be fair, the play’s inundation with Life of the Mind quotes can be a bit much at times, but the familiar thematic qualities and the believability of the characters makes up for the wordy dialogue. Mickey in particular is an incredibly developed character, and Strangland’s performance is a sight to behold. His mental instability shows signs of rearing its ugly head throughout the play, and in the final reconciliation scene, we learn that his instability has ultimately ruined both characters’ chances for happiness.

Huff was elusive when asked how autobiographical the play was, cryptically remarking that “one essential thing I learned before becoming a U of C casualty, something that lends an additional shade of gray to the fabric of Gray City, is that there is a fictional dimension to everything—yes, even to what we fashionably call ‘reality.’”

The title of the play refers to a phrase no longer in common use at the U of C, but which was quite common 20 years ago. The term refers to leaving behind a black and white understanding of what’s right and wrong.

“The U of C is the first exposure for many undergrads, as it was for me, to anything remotely resembling comparative religions, comparative philosophies, comparative psychologies, [and] comparative worldviews,” Huff said. “At other schools, I was taught rote memorization and recitation. At the U of C, I was taught to think. As an undergrad there, I was taught to doubt everything I believed in and naïvely held sacred. Being forcibly stripped of received knowledge can be a painful experience on par with having your skin removed sans anesthetic, but in the end it’s valuable.”

The grayness of making choices affects Mickey and Katie throughout they play, as they must deal with decisions regarding pregnancy, abortion, marriage, life, death, and madness. Their U of C education, in some cases, proves to be absolutely worthless. “Diotima taught Socrates all about love. The fudgy thing about it, though, is when love transcends individuality and being, it makes day-to-day survival (getting out of bed, going to work, paying bills) pretty damn near impossible.”

What did Huff think of his play’s tagline? “Yes, love does stand a chance when living The Life of the Mind. But then you graduate, you leave [the] U of C, then you get real. You have to make your best stab at participating sanely in a world where the best and the brightest believe amassing inconceivable amounts of cash is the highest calling and where war is still insanely considered a viable method for resolving disputes (and making money).”

Even with a multitude of options for plays to see over the course of finals week and spring break, Gray City is required viewing for any Chicago student who wants to see what the University of Chicago looks like from outside of the confines of Hyde Park. I can’t recommend it highly enough.