Worried couples wage war in Well-Appointed Room

By Nora Hanna

You’re at the University of Chicago, so you’ve probably taken a class, any class, that you and your friends secretly call “Semantic Bullshit.” You could go one of two ways on your professor—you could have a crush on him (even though he’s pretentious as they come) or resent him for being so obnoxious.

Well, I must admit—upon seeing Richard Greenberg’s The Well-Appointed Room at the Steppenwolf Theater, I developed a girl crush on its leading woman, Amy Morton. The play’s smart and slightly elitist repartee is mesmerizing. Morton, as Natalie, attacks her husband with her witty and articulate banter.

Even though both characters in Act I are terribly self-interested, Natalie’s husband, Stewart (Tracy Letts), seems to deserve the blame for his bad behavior. His wife is then exalted for her merciless, shark-like attack of him. Stewart uses phrases like “the ‘is’-ness of life” when describing his writing style, as well as comparing the usage of his native Long Island in his plays to that of James Joyce’s Dublin.

One begins to doubt that Stewart has very much talent. Natalie, in one of her rants against her husband, reminds him that he writes his drug-addicted brother into every play. She relates his style of writing—and its apparent success with audiences—as nostalgia. Anyone could write his plays, but they arouse in the audience a feeling, a moment in time, when all was right with the world.

I admit that I was skeptical when I first sat down and heard the jazzy strains of a Michael Bublé–like singer. It greeted me as I first met these characters and saw their sleek, NYC kitchen and ultra-modern furniture (leaving me with a yuppie aftertaste). I guess I’m always a little suspicious of people who have more books than they can read in one lifetime. You know who you are. But I was soon fully engaged in Richard Greenberg’s smart and snappy dialogue.

Natalie seems cruel, cutting down her husband every chance she gets. Tracy Letts’s portrayal of the happy-go-lucky playwright is almost likeable in the beginning, but he soon gets so caught up in his own semantic bullshit that we never see beyond his superficial, pretentious surface. However, it does come as a surprise when an oddly exhilarated Natalie answers one of Stewart’s questions by screaming, “It is because I hate you…I was playing a game to see if you noticed it, but you never did.”

The Well-Appointed Room’s first act is about the disintegration of a marriage. Some critics call this play Greenberg’s answer to September 11, with Natalie as terrorist and Stewart as America. I disagree. If this play is to work at all, it has to be simply a play about relationships and the flaws inherent in marrying someone you don’t respect.

Act II is completely different. Josh Charles, as Mark, relates the history of his relationship with his wife, Gretchen (Kate Arrington). Right from the beginning, he promises us a happy ending—a declaration met with a sigh of relief from the audience, still stunned from the hate and venom of the first act. We want to believe Mark because deep down, we want to believe that some relationships work—and not all of them end with everyone detesting each other.

After meeting at a bus stop in the rain, Gretchen and Mark fall in love, but something always comes between them. Gretchen’s constant distance and dreaminess keeps Mark from fully being with her. Soon, her “dreaminess” melts into madness.

I recommend this play for anyone who has ever watched a family member or a friend go quietly insane. It treats the subject matter with respect, and you see the frustration and anger that Mark feels when nothing he can do helps. Gretchen’s quiet insanity takes on the form of projecting the future. She is pregnant with Mark’s child, and she talks about the child as if he is already grown up.

These two acts could very well have been expanded to full plays themselves. The first act is the strongest, with its smart, articulate banter. However, if you go to the theater for something uplifting, stay for the second act. Overall, the strong performances of Josh Charles and Amy Morton make The Well-Appointed Room a play I recommend for all students looking for a night of entertainment—as well as beautiful character studies.