Richard Greenberg's exploration of urban anxiety, The Well-Appointed Room, is two companion plays with a common setting: a living room of formal size in an older New York apartment, with high ceilings, heavy crown moldings, and bookshelves 25 feet wide. A working open-air luxury kitchen, designed by Robert Brill, has been installed on one side.
For the curtain raiser, "Nostalgia," the room is tastefully furnished with stainless-steel kitchen appliances, expensive lighting, and midcentury Eames- and Mies-style furniture. In an exuberant Sunday-morning brunch ritual, a Tony-winning playwright, Stewart, cooks an omelet as his wife, Natalie, destroys him, in a classic two-character writing exercise running just 35 minutes. "Nostalgia" has nothing to do with marriage, love, or relationships; it's Greenberg's expression of professional anxieties. Natalie, a relentless antagonist, pierces the writer's heart by asking what makes his work better than others', adding, "Has it ever occurred to you that you are irrelevant?" Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney provides spot-on direction for fellow ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as Stewart and Natalie. In sharp, energetic attack mode, they are the Bickersons turned venomous.
If "Nostalgia" is the writer's nightmare, "Prolepsis," the second, longer piece, is everyone's nightmare: Greenberg's exploration of human anxieties. The room is empty for "Prolepsis," in which Mark and Gretchen are young, successful, loving, and eager to start a family. When their first-choice apartment is rendered uninhabitable by the Sept. 11 attacks, they buy the older unit left by the playwright from the earlier play. Eight months pregnant, Gretchen suffers delusions as they move in, believing a lifetime has passed, her unborn son has grown up, and she and Mark are moving on to retirement. Vaguely yet comprehensively fearful of facing life or bringing a new life into the world, Gretchen creates a safe and idyllic fantasy of life already lived. Along the way, they meet secondary characters (played by Letts and Morton) who reinforce the couple's perspective. Kinney mellows the mood for much of "Prolepsis," allowing Steppenwolf guest artists Josh Charles and Kate Arrington to play the swift, sweet romance of Mark and Gretchen, and treating Gretchen's illness as gentle insanity, something that Arrington develops with charming conviction.
Running under two hours, The Well-Appointed Room is pithy and boasts Greenberg's signature well-spoken wit as well as literary references (Proust, Henry James, Strindberg) and stylish verbal set pieces. Still, it may leave viewers unfulfilled, as it raises fundamental questions Greenberg can't really answer. It's a work of mood and emotion rather than story or characters (all of whom are somewhat archetypal). The meatier "Prolepsis" achieves a superficial happy ending when Mark says that Gretchen's fantasies ended the moment their son was born. But Greenberg doesn't assure us that Gretchen's anxiety has dissipated. How could he?
The Well-Appointed Room runs Jan. 12-March 12 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Tickets: (312) 335-1650. Website: www.steppenwolf.org.