With full-frontal male nudity, extensive discussion of sexual activity and a vice-oriented plot involving cops shacked up with hookers barely out of high school, Chi playwright Rebecca Gilman has returned to her dramatic roots in the American underclass for her third world premiere at the Goodman and first collaboration with director Robert Falls.
A racy, smart piece of gritty social realism that’s alternately funny and politically provocative, “Blue Surge” will appeal to younger auds and spark many further productions. Despite a Broadway-sized Goodman premiere painted by Falls in broad but compelling theatrical strokes, this sad but hauntingly humanistic script probably would be most at home with hyper-realistic acting in a smaller, simpler Off Broadway house.
Set in a small Midwestern city, “Blue Surge” opens with a thirtysomething cop named Curt (Joe Forbrich) trying to entrap a semi-naked massage therapist named Sandy (Rachel Miner) into giving him something that’s not on the printed menu. She knows it’s a sting, but Curt’s partner Doug (Steve Key) seems to get luckier with Sandy’s colleague Heather (Rebecca Jordan).
The case falls apart, but each of the policemen develops an interest in his respective prostitute — Curt wants to try to help his young woman; Doug’s interest is more carnal. But Curt’s desire to help a 19-year-old girl gone astray does not sit well with Beth (Amy Landecker), his older, upscale girlfriend.
Gilman’s main point is that the cops and the hookers are cut from the same social cloth — indeed, they have high school friends in common and share the usual dysfunctional families. All are struggling in a world that has little time for people without the requisite smarts or diplomas. Beth is there mainly to function as a representative of the slumming upper-middle class.
In one dazzling scene, Curt angrily unloads all of his deep-rooted class-based insecurities on Beth. Gilman is commendably writing about a social class — the Bush-voting white working-class — who are largely ignored by American playwrights.
As with Gilman’s previous plays, some will likely charge that the debates in “Blue Surge” are forced, the immediacy of its language and issues more suited to cable television than a resident theater. Certainly, there are some contrivances of plot and moments when characters lapse into polemics. But Gilman’s writing is heartfelt, and the narrative crackles along with plenty of surprises.
The highlight of Falls’ production is a powerful, enigmatic performance from 20-year-old Rachel Miner (who played Margot Frank in the recent Broadway revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank”). She’s matched by the craggy, understated Joe Forbrich, who brings just the right self-reflexive element to Curt, and the wackier Steve Key, who provides many of the laughs. Amy Landecker doesn’t look entirely comfortable as Beth, and the role is underwritten at present.
But if Falls’ production could use a few paces toward credibility, it’s nonetheless a lively, flashy, gripping and typically smart piece of theater, with a splendid set from Walt Spangler.