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Guys have their say in Goodman’s breezy ‘Support Group for Men’

Tommy Rivera-Vega (Kevin), Ryan Kitley (Brian), Keith Kupferer (Roger) and Anthony Irons (Delano) in the world premiere of Support Group for Men by Ellen Fairey, directed by Kimberly Senior (June 23 – July 29, 2018).

Tommy Rivera-Vega (as Kevin, from left), Ryan Kitley (Brian), Keith Kupferer (Roger) and Anthony Irons (Delano) in the world premiere of "Support Group for Men" by Ellen Fairey and directed by Kimberly Senior . | Liz Lauren

“Support Group for Men,” a new play at the Goodman Theatre about a gathering of straight guys who talk about their feelings rather than play poker, begins with what the guys are drinking. It’s not beer, or even a robust Cabernet. It’s rosé.

Pink wine.

It’s funny. Obvious, but still funny.

Like rosé, this comedy works well as a summer offering: very light, entertainingly crisp, and a bit more than semi-sweet.

‘Support Group for Men’
★★★
When: Through July 29
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn.
Tickets: $25-$80
Info: goodmantheatre.org
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission

Playwright Ellen Fairey had a hit play with the also sweet but more sorrowful “Graceland,” which ran at the now-defunct Profiles Theatre in 2009 and was then produced at Lincoln Center in New York. Since then, she’s been writing for television, including Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and “Masters of Sex.”

She brings a good deal of subtle craft, and Chicago detail, to “Support Group for Men.” It’s a character-driven work, which means that it advances less by narrative motion and mostly by revealing more about the characters. There’s just enough of a story to enable revelation and a soupçon of transformation.

Four diverse guys meet on Thursdays in a Northside apartment (realistically designed by Jack Magaw) belonging to Brian (Ryan Kitley), who at 51 is the oldest employee of the Apple Store and is cool and confident enough to put together the group in the first place. A younger co-worker, Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega), tags along enthusiastically and helps explain to the older guys some of the more baffling qualities of Millennials. Brian’s high-school friend Del (Anthony Irons) is the only married member of the group, who adores his wife but needs this escape. And finally there’s Roger (Keith Kupferer), really the main character in all this — the guy’s guy of guy’s guys.

Roger, who cleans “The Bean” in Millennium Park for a living, seems like the type of guy who would scoff at joining any type of support group. And Kupferer wonderfully conveys the character’s constant sense of resistance to everything he’s doing. His participation requires a lot of conscious effort, a containment of his eye-rolling as he respects the ritualistic procedures of speaking only when you have the talking stick (a decorated baseball bat), saying your chosen name (his is Floating Squirrel), and as a listener, thumping your chest to acknowledge the sharing.

This being near both Wrigley Field and the gay bars of Boystown, some loud and strange things happen in the alley below, putting sound designer Richard Woodbury to work. Just as you begin to wonder how Fairey is going to keep up the pink wine-type jokes for much longer, one of those incidents winds up introducing us to a couple of cops (Sadieh Rifai and Eric Slater) and a surprise outsider (Jeff Kurysz) tailor-made to advance further the discussions of what it means to be a man.

The cast of "Support Group for Men" by Ellen Fairey, directed by Kimberly Senior at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren

The cast of “Support Group for Men” by Ellen Fairey, directed by Kimberly Senior at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren

Although Fairey pokes plenty of fun at performative masculinity, this is, in fact, a deeply sympathetic portrayal of men in the midst of rapidly changing expectations. Roger has some issues, but he doesn’t blame others for them. Although curmudgeonly, his primary expression isn’t anger as much as pure befuddlement. “What’s pound-sign ‘me too’?” he asks at one point regarding signs and shouts in the alley.

He’s gruff — he enjoys screaming out the window for people in the alley to shut up — but we can see that he’s a softie, a teddy bear. Just let him roar a bit, he explains. He likes it, and sometimes it helps the situation.

He’s also lonely, which is what led him to join a softball league, which is how he met Ryan and ended up here, holding a Native-American-inspired talking stick and exposing those odd incorporeal things called feelings.

Kimberly Senior directs this production in a way that appropriately fills out the Goodman’s main stage, despite the fact that the play certainly seems like the ideal second-stage offering, and it might benefit from greater intimacy. She also brings out terrific performances. In addition to Kupferer’s impeccable turn, all of the actors deliver finely tuned portraits. Anthony Irons brings to life a caring husband who lives with a degree of fear of losing what he’s got; Kitley’s Ryan knows he’s not really as cool as he puts on; and Rivera-Vega convinces us that Kevin would actually enjoy spending time with older dudes.

There’s an effortlessness to the acting and direction here that matches the play’s modesty. “Support Group for Men” doesn’t get much deeper than an expression of sympathy for the struggles men have to connect with themselves and with other men. Bromance, it suggests, ain’t easy.

But the quality of the sentiment is high, the dialogue breezes pleasantly by, and the characters feel real.

Steve Oxman is a local freelance writer.