Two Chicago plays, both riveting productions, explore the angst of relationships and the gulf between guilt and trust. Skylight, David Hare’s play at Court Theatre set in the Thatcher era, finds a couple meeting again after several years and trying to discover whether they are still the same people who once loved each other. At Steppenwolf Theatre, The Motherf**cker with the Hat (I’m spelling it as they do on the playbill) by Stephen Adly Guirgis, puts two couples in a contemporary setting about addiction, infidelity, trust and guilt. And of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen connection.
Skylight, which I also saw at Steppenwolf about 15 years ago, is about a reunion of Kyra, a young woman who teaches in a tough part of London, and Tom, her former lover, a wealthy restaurant owner, whose wife died a year ago. (He seems patterned after Terence Conran.) She lived with his family earlier and left when his wife discovered their affair. They talk about their lives, their feelings about the past, and their profound disagreements about Kyra’s chosen way of life. Actually they talk far too much and both acts of the play drag to a 2.5-hour ending. (My motto: Everyone needs an editor.)
The Motherfucker With the Hat (all the reviews and the script itself spell out the word; I don’t know why Steppenwolf was so dainty) is a profane, fast-moving series of scenes in which men and women swear to stay clean and faithful and manage to do neither.
Jackie, the dealer and ex-convict, says to his AA sponsor, Ralph D: “Even though we’re fucked up, we got a code. It’s a fucked up code, but still, it’s a code.” However, the code is broken over and over again while the players profess love and trust and unashamedly acknowledge guilt. The Motherfucker does not need an editor; it’s tightly written and runs about 100 minutes.
I came home from this theater evening and picked up my copy of Bruce, the 2012 Springsteen biography by Peter Ames Carlin. I had put the book down in the middle of the chapter about the creation of the Tunnel of Love album, during Bruce’s first marriage. He acknowledged to interviewers that he was learning how to be married. Writing the songs for Tunnel of Love, Carlin says, “Bruce followed the knotted strands of his married life, working to string them into words and music.” The songs are about the difficulties of keeping a relationship together, about love and trust, longing and guilt – and possibly the lack of an escape route. I listened to the album while I read, knowing the story ended in divorce.
I didn’t care for the album when it was first released in 1987. For one thing, the E Street Band played almost no part in its production and that always turns off the true Bruce obsessives. However, I’ve come to really like Tunnel of Love. The songs are poignant and probably the closest things to love songs that Bruce ever wrote. (But they still rock, of course.) My favorite song on Tunnel of Love is “Brilliant Disguise,” which hit #5 on the singles chart in 1987. It sums up this discourse nicely.
Well I’ve tried so hard baby but I just can’t see
What a woman like you is doing with me
So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes
Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise?