Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Support Group for Men
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's reviews of Waitress and The Roommate


Tommy Rivera-Vega, Ryan Kitley, Keith Kupferer,
and Anthony Irons

Photo by Liz Lauren
As you may have heard, men as a gender are under fire these days, so one might reasonably suspect a play called Support Group for Men to be, well, less than supportive. But just as the staunch anti-Communist Richard Nixon was uniquely able to open up diplomatic relations with China, the female playwright Ellen Fairey has created an empathetic if not uncritical look at men and some of the things that can make it tough to be one. Her advice is hardly new—men should be willing and able to talk about their feelings—but she presents it so convincingly that you might find her suggestion at the very least a good place to start. Now in its world premiere production at Goodman Theatre, Support Group for Men is no political/social tract, but rather the sort of stage comedy that finds its laughs in our very human weaknesses and delusions. In its respect and affection for its characters even while poking fun at them, it's the sort of humanistic comedy that compares with the best of Neil Simon's work.

The support group of Fairey's comedy is a weekly meeting of a small group of young to middle-aged men who gather in the Chicago apartment of its organizer, Brian (Ryan Kitley). Brian is a 51-year-old single man in a relationship with a woman some 20 years his junior, and that's not the only thing that marks him as sufferer of the Peter Pan Syndrome. He lives right in the middle of Wrigleyville, a neighborhood mostly inhabited by post-collegiate singles and home to a multitude of sports bars. (Chicagoans who know this north side neighborhood and its denizens will recognize the people and place depicted herein.)

Brian is the oldest employee at an Apple Store and has invited his co-worker Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega) to the group. The meeting format is typical of support groups—each participant takes a turn to share their feelings while the others merely listen—and rules prohibit any cross-talk or advice giving. To that routine, Brian has added some elements found in certain men's groups. Borrowing from Native American culture, each man creates a name like "soaring eagle," and the symbol held by whoever has chosen to share is "the stick"—a baseball bat adorned with Native American trappings. The other attendees at this particular meeting are Brian's old high school pal Del (Anthony Irons) and Roger (Keith Kupferer), a 50-ish single man whose job is cleaning "The Bean" (the reflective metal sculpture in Millennium Park whose actual name is "Cloud Gate").

Roger is new to the group and more than a little uncomfortable with the whole sharing thing. The other three are all sort of used to it, but beyond Del's complaints about his wife's insecurity over her looks, they don't seem to have much troubling them. However, as always seems to happen in a good comedy, outside forces intervene to make this an exceptional night for the group. Those outside forces are right outside Brian's window: a collection of loud patrons of the sports bars on the street below who commit offenses ranging from the annoying to the criminal. Reacting first out of annoyance, then compassion, the men get drawn into the events below. The second floor apartment is soon visited by two beat cops (Sadieh Rifai and Eric Slater) and a young man (Jeff Kurysz) who becomes an unplanned addition to the group.

Fairey keeps surprising us with what happens next and I won't spoil those surprises. What's special about this play is that there's more beneath the surface of each of the men than we (or at least they) initially expect, and first impressions of each character prove to be inaccurate or at least superficial. Director Kimberly Senior and her cast keep things moving and funny without resorting to stereotypes, delivering Fairey's satire by showing us traits we can recognize and laugh at while coming to care about the characters who exhibit those traits.

As the founder of the group, Brian is the most "sensitive" of the men—a mildly new age-y kind of guy who seems to be together but proves to be less perceptive than he thought. Kitley's remarkable performance makes Brian a fully formed character that is remarkably free of pretension, given his misconceptions about his situation. Keith Kupferer has long been Chicago's go-to guy for playing rough-around-the-edges middle-aged men and it's hard to picture anyone else in this role. If the pinnacle of his dramatic work has been the father in Chicago's world premiere of Stephen Karam's Tony Award-winning The Humans, Support Group for Men shows him to be just as impressive with comedy. His character, Roger, grows the most in this 90-minute play and Kupferer keeps us rooting for the guy all along. Also a standout in this uniformly strong cast is Kurysz as the late entry into the group, the most complex and intense man in the room.

Over the course of what turns into an overnight meeting, and with the help of some hallucinogens, a good many things come to the surface: insecurities over jobs and relationships, fear of intimacy, homophobia and gender issues. Fairey brings them out with a light hand, though—always rising from characters and situations. Support Group for Men is a kind, conciliatory contribution to our current discussion on gender, but even more, it is a well-crafted, feel-good comedy that feels like just what we need right now.

Support Group for Men, through July 29, 2018, at the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Ave., Chicago IL. Tickets and further information are available at GoodmanTheatre.org, by telephone at 312-443-3800 or at the box office.


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