Kate Arrington and Tracy Letts in The Well-Appointed Room
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Kate Arrington and Tracy Letts
in The Well-Appointed Room
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
In 2004, I met several liberal, Democratic, suburban mothers who told me they were voting for George Bush because of national security issues. I asked them, "Are you afraid that a terrorist will fly a plane into your children's school? Do you seriously think the water supply will be poisoned? Do you fear that someone will blow up your husband's workplace?" The answers were always no, but sometimes we can't precisely verbalize our fears or what causes them.

Richard Greenberg's new play The Well-Appointed Room, now receiving its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, was written as a kind of personal psychotherapy that same year, when the author felt the world closing in on him. The Tony Award winner had just purchased a new Manhattan apartment and yet, as the Republican Party gathered in New York for its convention, he was anxious nearly to the point of paralysis. His resulting exploration of urban anxiety is two companion pieces with a common setting: a room of formal size in an older New York apartment with high ceilings and heavy crown moldings. Originally the living room, it now has an open-air luxury kitchen installed on one side, while ultra-wide bookshelves cut a swath along the back wall.

For the curtain-raiser, Nostalgia, the room is tastefully furnished with stainless steel kitchen appliances, expensive lighting, and mid-century furniture. We meet middle-aged Stewart (Tracy Letts) and Natalie (Amy Morton) in the midst of an exuberant Sunday morning brunch ritual. Stewart, who cooks an omelet, is a famous playwright with a Tony Award on display on one of the bookshelves. In this classic two-character writing exercise, which runs just 35 minutes, Natalie destroys him and walks out. However, Nostalgia has nothing to do with the perils of marriage; it's Greenberg's expression of his professional insecurities. Natalie, a relentless antagonist, pierces the writer's heart by asking what makes his work better than others, then adding, "Has it ever occurred to you that you are irrelevant?"

The room is empty in Prolepsis, the second, longer piece, which is Greenberg's exploration of personal anxiety. Mark (Josh Charles) and Gretchen (Kate Arrington) are young, successful, very much in love, and eager to start a family. After their first-choice apartment is rendered uninhabitable by the 9/11 attacks, they buy the older unit left by the playwright we met in the first piece. Gretchen, eight months pregnant, falls into a curious madness in which she believes a lifetime has passed, her unborn son is grown up, and she and Mark are moving out of the apartment (rather than moving in) to retirement in the country. Fearful of facing life or bringing a new life into the world, Gretchen creates a safe and idyllic fantasy of a life already lived. Along the way, she and Mark each meet secondary characters -- played by Letts and Morton -- who reinforce their perspectives.

Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney has given spot-on direction to his four-person cast. Letts and Morton play Stewart and Natalie in sharp attack mode with the energy of The Bickersons turned poisonous. Kinney then mellows the mood for much of Prolepsis, allowing Charles and Arrington to live the swift, sweet romance of Mark and Gretchen. Even Gretchen's illness is treated as a kind of gentle insanity, displayed by Arrington with charming conviction.

Robert Brill has designed a detailed, realistic set with a working kitchen and a full ceiling; there's nothing vague or suggested here. Reportedly, it's closely modeled on Greenberg's own apartment, though the set is enginnered to come apart briefly in a visual coup de théâtre at the beginning of Prolepsis that allows Mark and Gretchen to explore the city outside the apartment walls. The lighting (by James F. Ingalls) and projections (by Sage Marie Carter) indicate the time of day and add a touch of mystery from time to time.

The Well-Appointed Room boasts Greenberg's signature well-spoken wit and literary references (Proust, Henry James, Strindberg, etc.), plus the sort of stylish verbal set pieces that actors and audiences love. Still, the piece is likely to leave many viewers feeling unfulfilled. It's an exploration of mood and emotion, with both plays driven by theme and situation rather than by character. When all is said and done, it asks questions for which Greenberg can't supply good answers.