As an in-demand young actor, Bruce Norris recently appeared on Broadway in the disastrous Wrong Mountain, a satire that closed in just two weeks. But the occasional author in Norris does not seem to have been scared off by the experience: the Chicago-trained artist (now based in New York) is back with a new drama, The Infidel, in a penetrating world premiere production at the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
An infidel is one who is unfaithful or a non-believer. By any standard measures, Harvey Garvey qualifies. His violation of social norms, including infidelity to his wife and the obsessive harassment of a younger woman who breaks off her affair with him, have destroyed Garvey's life and career. The once-respected state supreme court justice now is in prison, gulping lithium to control what most perceive as mental illness. But Garvey really has become a Jekyll and Hyde following his heart and passions and refusing to see his actions as misdeeds. Thus, either he's an infidel or we are.
Garvey is the dark center of Norris's demanding and perceptive new play, which must be listened to and not simply heard; must be observed and not merely watched. Language towers over action, so the audience needs to focus in order to extract full value. In just 90 minutes, this pithy but multi-layered work speaks about the withdrawal of affection, the corruptibility of desire, middle-aged emotional and physical decline, the travesty of hope and expectation (listen to Moss's tale, near the end of the play, of a mother's kiss denied), self-delusion, and our collective illusion of normalcy. Garvey describes his wife as "snoring in our bed, erasing the distinction between flesh and flannel" in one of Norris's typically wry yet somber verbal fusillades.
Part of Norris's achievement is that one has sympathy for Garvey, though he has done despicable things for which he pointedly remains unapologetic--even at a hearing to reduce his sentence (which is the premise of the play's thin line of action). The reason why is because Garvey understands life too well. A victim of life's terror, defeat and regimentation despite his august professional position, he is both smug and confused as he longs for a different, better reality; one which he has pursued neither wisely nor well. A grand passion has destroyed him, but at least he has had a grand passion. "We don these whale bone corsets of shame at such an early age. The rest of our lives, we work at how to unlace them," he says by way of explanation.
As staged by Steppenwolf resident director Anna D. Shapiro, the production is quite a spellbinder, if you come prepared to concentrate. Veteran Chicago favorite Mike Nussbaum plays the fallen judge with hollow eyes, a deep knowledge of pain, a core of arrogance, and the occasional flash of an aging cherub's smile. As his former judicial colleague (now his hearing officer), Robert Breuler does big things with little things, such as eyebrows, calm looks, and softly spoken but cagey replies to his old friend Garvey's inquiries.
In less developed supporting roles, Maureen Gallagher plays the perturbed but responsible Mrs. Garvey, who has withdrawn affection from her husband and also had it withdrawn from her. Will Zahrn plays the efficient plaintiff's attorney, Charin Alvarez is Garvey's lover-turned-victim, and Dale Rivera is the Guard.
A few stage and video effects (scenic by Mark Netherland, video by Logan Kibens, lighting by Heather Gilbert) punch up the otherwise static physical production in the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, but Shapiro wisely has not let them overwhelm the show, as they do in Valparaiso, the similarly-themed world premiere by Don DeLillo playing on the Steppenwolf mainstage. A final tableau of a pure and cleansing snowfall--with a beaming Garvey on his knees before his lover/victim--is a beautiful, unexpected and disturbing closing coda; one that places a question mark against any judgments we've made about Harvey Garvey.