Theaters are hungry beasts, forever on the prowl for the juicy new work of both promising and veteran playwrights. Steppenwolf Theatre is among the most aggressive script-hunters in town, and the company makes a particular display of its fresh prey each year during its First Look Repertory of New Work, a series that showcases three plays in fully staged productions in its Garage space.
Of the trio of works that opened this weekend (all featuring clever, movable set designs by Chelsea Warren), Carly Mensch’s “Oblivion” is in many ways the strongest and most sophisticated. Zayd Dohrn’s “Want” might be seen as an intriguing philosophical and thematic footnote to “Oblivion.” Christina Anderson’s “Man in Love” is clunky but earns points for dealing with matters of race and recession through a historic lens.
Mensch’s play boldly addresses a subject many liberal intellectuals prefer to dance around or avoid: the role of religious faith in contemporary life. And it asks some very loaded questions. Is intangible belief, and the notion of unconditional love, just an opiate of the masses, a step on the road to fundamentalism or cultlike behavior, and/or a sign of underdevelopment? Or, is condescension toward such religious faith the great prejudice of those who think they are prejudice-free and engaged in a higher form of rational life?
Ultra-Manhattanites Dixon (the uncannily comic and incisive Marc Grapey), an attorney-turned-writer, and his public television producer wife, Pam (the potently focused Elizabeth Rich), learn that their smart, athletic, 16-year-old daughter, Julie (Fiona Robert, a genuine high school senior, is ideal), has secretly gone off to a Korean Baptist church retreat with her nerdy filmmaker schoolmate, Bernard (Rammel N. Chan, stuck in a quirky but overly stereotyped role), the son of Korean Christian immigrants. Pam, in particular, is fit to be tied. Though nominally Jewish, Dixon and Pam are detached from and even wary of religion. But Julie, in a period of adolescent confusion (and clarity), is searching for something other than cynicism, snarkiness and brain games. She wants feeling. And her quest gradually upends her parents’ marriage and much more in this play (expertly directed by Matt Miller) that is at once smart, funny, probing and unsettling.