With governments crippled by debt, politicians bickering and all manner of personal investments tanking, it's mighty tough to remember the optimism of 2005. But in London that summer, the mood could not have been more different from the one that permeates August 2011.
Britain's capital city had just snagged the 2012 Olympic Games. Mortgage-backed securities offered handsome returns. And with much optimistic chatter from Prime Minister Tony Blair and the arrival of the gigantic, politician-blessed concert called Live 8, it seemed that the developed world was finally getting serious about addressing one of the last great plagues of modern humanity: crippling poverty in Africa.
My, how the world has changed in six years! The Olympics are still happening, but (as the London newspapers have revealed in recent days) the euphoria of the announcement has been replaced by the practicalities of construction delays and the arguments over ticket distribution. And idealism has mostly been replaced by crisis-management. On both sides of the Atlantic.
That very different summer of 2005 is the backdrop for Simon Stephens' "Pornography," an intriguing collage of a play that aims to paint a picture of a great city at a moment when the eyes of the world were fixated on its doings. Steep Theatre Company, which has staged the Midwest premiere of several of Stephens' typically bleak-but-humane plays, has picked a very interesting moment to open this latest work.
Despite its salacious title, "Pornography" is not about sexual objectification, nor the revelation of naked flesh. Rather, Stephens is interested in showing that, even when things seem to be going well for governments, individuals still can feel alienated and bereft. This is, of course, a familiar theme in this writer's work. Nonetheless, his point here is a very sharp one: Even as all that optimism was firing up London during the early weeks of that summer, a quartet of young men from the north of England were preparing a series of deadly explosions on the city's transportation system. Britons were turning on Britons, even in the country's moment in the sun. So why was that?
I wandered into Steep Friday night just a few hours after landing from a trip to today's very different Britain — I'd actually spent some quality time that very morning on the Piccadilly Line, one of the subway lines targeted for those explosions. This was a rather strange, jet-lagged experience, but it revealed a number of things.
The first is that Steep has now become a theater where an audience can really count on the power and quality of the acting. "Pornography" is basically a collection of monologues and two-person scenes, forged between characters who have their say and then mostly disappear into the shadows. Each and every last performance from this nine-member cast feels utterly authentic. And in several cases — the work done by Kendra Thulin, Caroline Neff and Michael Salinas, to name just three examples in a superb young ensemble — the characters not only feel credibly British, they are realized with jolting, full-throated intensity. A young actor called Rudy Galvan, who is very moving, also greatly distinguishes himself.
"Pornography" is, for sure, an episodic play that some will feel lacks dramatic tension (Stephens wrote the text to be unusually malleable and playable by different-size casts; that extracts a price). That lack of tension is the chief flaw of Robin Witt's otherwise very impressive production. This is a superbly detailed piece of direction that, alas, doesn't pay quite enough attention to how the overall stakes of the night are building. Each of the scenes is superbly realized, but the scenes don't work quite as well together. The internal energy tends to dissipate as we move from one portrait to another. Part of the issue here is that Mike Tutaj's typically creative video montages — it's rather like watching the opening sequence to HBO's "True Blood," with a gothic Britain replacing Louisiana — count down the number of monologues and scenes in the script. That works against the provision of surprise. And unlike Stephens' "Harper Regan," this piece lacks an empathetic central character whom one can track throughout.
All that said, though, this is one of those shows that inhabits the mind long after it ends. Here in the summer, it's a 95-minute work of considerable substance and force that will offer plenty of fodder for minds that resist being addled by humidity and the beach. Stephens probes the extent of national culpability for evil and suffering wrought by a tiny group of citizens. Those conversations are always unpopular, but they're still essential.
My first reaction at the end of "Pornography" was that this 2008 piece had dated quickly, that the malaise to which it wanted to draw attention had exploded all on its own.
But in the 36 hours between seeing the show and writing this review, I've come to think that the work feels mostly like a meditation on how much we are (or are not) impacted by a national mood.
For we minor individuals, the sense of society going well or poorly certainly has an impact on our psyche (few were smiling on Thursday as stock markets tanked). But our love lives and our professional lives also travel on their own, separate tracks. How much does it matter how things are going for the country? Or does it mostly matter how things are going for us? With "Pornography," I suppose, we all define it for ourselves.
When: Through Sept. 3
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $20-$22 at 866-811-4111