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Steep Theatre’s grim soldier story borders on exploitation

Home after fighting Iraq Danny (Joel Reitsmcenter) encounters kinky married couple (Alex Gillmor KendrThulin) “Motortown.”

Home after fighting in Iraq, Danny (Joel Reitsma, center) encounters a kinky married couple (Alex Gillmor and Kendra Thulin) in “Motortown.”

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‘MOTORTOWN’

Somewhat Recommended

When: Through Nov. 9

Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn

Tickets : $20-$22

Info: (866) 811-4111; www.steeptheatre.com

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM



Watch Steep Theatre’s scorchingly acted North American premiere of “Motortown,” and you may have more than a few questions about its author, British playwright Simon Stephens.

Is he the Harold Pinter of the early decades of the 21st century, seizing hold of that earlier playwright’s ever-lurking sense of menace, but exponentially punching up the sinister quotient? Or is he an outraged moral critic with an exaggerated streak of the shock jock about him — writing plays that suggest there might well be some sort of high-power methamphetamine flowing through society’s tap water?

“Motortown” is a pitch-black, profoundly disturbing horror show. And the cast at Steep Theatre, under the razorlike direction of Robin Witt, acts the stuffing out of it. But lurking just behind that visceral impact is yet another question, and a troubling one: Isn’t there something just a bit too sensational, too exploitative, even subtly pornographic, about it all? Or is that precisely the point?

At the crazed center of Stephens’ story is Danny (Joel Reitsma in a fearsome fire-and-ice performance). A 27-year-old English “squaddie” who has recently returned from fighting in Basra, Iraq, he is very definitely not “all right,” as even his mentally handicapped but insightful and adoring brother, Lee (a fine performance by Chris Chmelik), can sense.

In fact, Danny is a grenade with the pin half-pulled out — unemployed in the East London suburb of Dagenham (home to the Ford auto factory, from which the play takes its title), more or less homeless, wholly alienated from his parents, ineligible for the sort of social benefits his brother is getting and dangerously warped by his experiences in the army. In addition, Marley (Julia Siple), the woman he left behind three years ago, is not only frightened by him but is brutally cold, and has moved on to someone else.

So, it might not be surprising that one of Danny’s first stops is at the shop of an old pal who sells guns (a brief but excellent turn by Eddie Reynolds). Next is an even more terrifying visit to a wealthy and sick, sick, sick black marketeer (Peter Moore, altogether chilling). He also appears to traffick in underage girls, and is living with one of them (Ashleigh LaThrop, a remarkable actress who also happens to be a great beauty). She will become the human sacrifice. And just for a little additional perversion, Danny also will have a belief-stretching encounter in a posh hotel bar with a married couple (Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor), who have a taste for decidedly kinky sex.

It is common knowledge that some soldiers return from war these days with psyches every bit as broken as bodies. And Stephens clearly wants to suggest the true obscenity of what, at best, is the indifference they face. But there is something too sensational about his approach to the subject. And statistics suggest that suicide rather than murder is often the outcome of their pain. The poison turns inward.

Note: As an outgrowth of its relationship with Simon Stephens over the past few years (including productions of his plays “Harper Regan” and “Pornography”), Steep has named Simon Stephens its inaugural “associate playwright” and committed itself to further collaborations with the London-based writer.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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