As we exited Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre after Tuesday night’s press opening of “The Fundamentals,” my partner Bob remarked that he was reminded of the 1998 film “Wild Things.” Naturally I demanded further clarification because on the surface, the Steppenwolf-commissioned world premiere of playwright Erika Sheffer’s latest work would seem to have little connection with the soft core, Denise Richards skin flick. Bob explained that the two stories share a common problem — “too many twists.”
As I thought about the unlikely comparison, another similarity rose to the surface. “Wild Things” boasted a high wattage cornucopia of talent: Bill Murray, Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and the aforementioned Richards. “The Fundamentals” is crafted by an A-list playwright and acted by true stars of the Chicago stage including Steppenwolf ensemble members Alana Arenas (Millie), Caroline Neff (Stellan) and Alan Wilder (Abe). And yet for all the promise offered by the metaphorical opening credits, both works fall kind of flat, victims of overextended cleverness — “too many twists.”
The first act of the two hour and 15 minute production (with one intermission) is full of promise. Press materials describe the plot as the story of Millie, “a smart, resourceful young mother who works as a housekeeper in one of New York’s premier luxury hotels. When an opportunity to move into management gives her the chance to leave behind her blue collar life, Millie must decide how much, and who, she’s willing to sacrifice.”
An often sharp look at the dehumanizing, dream crushing effects of swimming with corporate sharks, “The Fundamentals” is a character study of compromise. Millie, as inhabited by the flawless Arenas, is given a relatable introduction. We all know someone like her, or perhaps recognize the character in ourselves: a devoted wife and mother keenly aware of the tradeoffs she’s made, chafing from an acute case of frustrated ambition. She is everyone’s reliable friend and co-worker, seething with latent anger that must find an outlet.
As the narrative progresses into the second act, Millie wades into moral murk that should open new dimensions and create suspense. However Sheffer overstuffs the script and the result is a different kind of murk that alienates the audience from the characters. Everyone is so busy scheming and double-crossing each other, it becomes impossible to root for anyone.
Case in point (with minimal spoilers): the trusting and friendly relationship between Millie and her longtime supervisor Abe is incomprehensibly degraded beyond recognition. Abe is far from a roadblock to Millie’s success and has in fact been a champion. The decision to abruptly transition him into tormentor smacks of deus ex machina overkill.
Rather than serve the story, the focus on corporate America is lost to a confusing explosion of infighting. It’s kind of impossible to pity characters or bemoan their fates with a creeping suspicion they all belong in the same jail cell. There are no winners here, but about 90 minutes into convoluted and repeated backstabs, it’s difficult to care.
All that said, Erika Sheffer’s gift for sharp dialogue remains evident, particularly during the first act. The author of another celebrated Steppenwolf production, 2012’s “Russian Transport,” Sheffer writes complicated exchanges that ring with organic truth. Getting to know Millie through conversations with her superiors and troubled, but loving husband Lorenzo (Armando Riesco) is an enjoyable build. Then Sheffer throws everyone off the narrative rails.
What a shame. With a cast such as this, it seems superfluous to observe that for all of its flaws, “The Fundamentals” is brilliantly acted. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Alana Arenas perform in a multitude of diverse productions and the actress never steps wrong. When a production fails to work, it’s not for her lack of effort. Riesco and Audrey Francis, as corporate robot Eliza, are standouts as well.
Scenic Designer Collette Pollard turns in some good work here. The smallish Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre stage feels like a cavernous hotel basement, believably conjuring the grimy Big Apple waiting for the characters as they commute to and from the office.
However in the end, we’re back at “Wild Things.” Like “The Fundamentals,” so many promising individual elements add up to a high-profile, memorable misstep.
“The Fundamentals” runs through December 23 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.