As a child born and raised in the Chicago of the late 1970s and '80s, a product of the public school system who lived in a variety neighborhoods, I can speak to the disorienting experience of watching gentrification occur in real time. Where once my friends and I had to walk circuitous routes to avoid gang activity, today lies the danger of getting run down by a jogging, upper middle class mom pushing a double wide stroller.
A similar, if more extreme version of this process is audited by Jackson (Eric Lynch), the handsome, educated, African-American attorney who purchases a condo in the morphing, urban, lower middle class community of his youth. The likable center character in playwright Tracey Scott Wilson's stellar "Buzzer," currently running at the Goodman Theatre, Jackson is the fulcrum of the seesaw that serves as a metaphor for relationships with girlfriend Suzy (Lee Stark) and best pal Don (Shane Kenyon).
At first blush, Suzy, an inner city schoolteacher, and Don, a recovering addict with seven trips to rehab under his belt, should possess the internal resources to navigate the rougher elements of their immediate environment. Suzy lives and breathes poverty and its assorted challenges all day, while Don makes much light and conversation over his various street adventures in drug-related crime.
Don and Jackson go way back, and the plot reveals the intertwining extent of the two men's fortunes. Jackson's mother was once employed by Don's wealthy white father, and it is revealed that the studious Jackson was in reality, the ambitious son Don's father never had.
It is clear that Suzy and Don both love Jackson, as he loves them in return, but at one poignant moment in the narrative, Suzy and Don reveal a "need" for Jackson that goes beyond affection and affinity. Jackson is clearheaded and stable, traits offered as an outgrowth of the very chaos in which he matured. Meanwhile, Suzy and Don, raised with the benefit of white privilege, are neurotic, confused and disoriented.
Deftly directed by Jessica Thebus and featuring performances from a group of Goodman newcomers (with the exception of Stark and Kenyon), the material feels as fresh as the faces onstage, although the production has been well-rehearsed. Thebus directed a reading of "Buzzer" last season as part of the "New Stages" festival. She describes Wilson's work in press materials as "sexy, funny, tough, uneasy," which pretty much nails the tenor of Wilson's play in four little words.
Opposing views and emotions tug and rip at each other, explored in the dynamics of the co-habitating trio. Jackson envies the ease and carelessness with which Don moves through the world, oblivious to his enabling whiteness. Don pines for the long-term intimacy shared by Jackson and Suzy. Suzy yearns for the freedom to be a little less "on" at all times, a freedom which her confusing friendship with Don affords.
As the play progresses, all three characters understand that they've gone off track and are confronting an interpersonal crisis. That crisis is elicited by Suzy's run-ins with some neighborhood toughs, and the lies and obfuscations surrounding them. In an effort to protect each other from truth and physical harm, the trio generates a confrontation that literally spills into the streets and alters their well-worn dynamic forever. Thebus, once again displaying a talent for word economy, labels this denouement "the Perfect Storm."
But there's nothing stormy about this top-notch production: the intricate, authentic script from Wilson; brilliant, layered performances from Lynch, Stark and Kenyon; sound design from Mikhail Fiksel that absolutely parrots the nocturnal anarchy of a neighborhood in transition. These are just a few of the wonderful elements in store for audiences.
Of many terrific moments in the dialogue, the opening scene still stands apart: Jackson, Suzy and Don, all onstage at the same time holding conversations with unseen interrogators. They compete to be heard, step over and bump into one another - though they are not supposed to be in the same room. It's intense, vivid and portends the mess that's about to unfold.
I would have to describe myself as fairly easy to please across the spectrum of Chicago's 2013/2014 theater season. There's been a lot of good work from a lot of great companies. But "Buzzer" deserves special recognition. It should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. You'll laugh. You'll cringe. You'll relate. It's all anyone could want from a piece of art.
"Buzzer" runs through March 9 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.