Monday, February 08, 2016


Chris (an unusually subdued James Kautz) wants Amber (the superb Vanessa Vache) to take him back. They've been together on and off since they were teens, and Chris admits that he's messed up again and again: laziness, affairs, drugs. But now he claims he's changed. Amber is tired: tired of his bullshit, tired of trying to scrape together enough money to get by, tired of being tired. She succumbs to Chris, but not optimistically:

Alex Grubbs, Vanessa Vache
Photo: Russ Rowland
Chris: It's gonna be good this time. 
Amber: You don’t know that. 
Chris: I do know that. I’m telling you that cause I know that to be a fact. 
Amber: You don’t know that, Chris. 
He wraps his arms around her, and she lets him. 
Chris: I do know that. I know it. I swear.
Two things distinguish Emily Schwend's Utility from similar plays: (1) there is a kindness and compassion lacking from, say, Sam Shepard's plays, and (2) Chris actually does behave better "this time" (at least up to a point). But is it good enough? Could there be such a thing as good enough?

In her quietly vivid play, Schwend shows us the straight jacket that is working poverty. A dropped birthday cake is practically a tragedy. Bills barely get paid, or not at all. Amber lives with the reality that she could work every second of every day and still not get ahead.

Chris, on the other hand, can find women to take care of him, and that makes all the difference. Even when he tries his best to help, it is Amber who is crushed by responsibilities. There is little Chris does without her telling him to do it; if he's not cheating on her now, he will be again at some point; and what he takes often outweighs what he gives.

And, yet, Chris is genuinely trying to be helpful. He knows it will take a long time to prove himself, particularly since he does dumb things like forgetting to pay the electricity bill. But he really loves Amber, and he's trying to grow up, at least a bit, so he keeps striving to be better. For Amber, however, his love comes with a huge cost in emotions--and money. Her world is built of limits and walls, and choosing to invest some of her limited energy in Chris is a potentially dangerous decision.

Amber's mother doesn't help any. She's recreationally critical, and she reflexively thinks having a man is a good thing.
Laura: Well, you just try and raise up those three kids by yourself. 
Amber: Mom, who do you think pays most of the bills around here? Gets those kids dressed and fed almost everyday? Ain’t Chris.
There's not a lot that is new here, and some of the scenes sound altogether too familiar. But Schwend cares about her characters, and over time, we do too. Toward the end of the play, there are a few scenes that raise Utility to a higher level. In particular, a conversation between Amber and her brother-in-law Jim (beautifully played by Alex Grubbs), all unfinished sentences and not-quite-expressed emotion, makes the whole play worthwhile.

Utility is something new for the Amoralists. Instead of their signature hyperemotional, in-your-face writing and performances, Utility (smoothly directed by Jay Stull) is quiet and realistic. Naturalism is a nice addition to the Amoralists' theatrical armamentarium.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 5th row)

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