Mix a gay director, a gay character and a bisexual all together and what do you get? The answer is THIS, a production at Windy City Playhouse. While the main story is centered around a straight couple, it is easy to see what people in the LGBT community have contributed to the end product. The production centers around four New Yorkers and their longtime friendship that is put to the test when adultery and life challenges are involved.
Carl Menninger directs THIS and comes from Chicago theater experience with Victory Gardens and Chicago Dramatists. He is currently an assistant professor of theater at American University in Washington, D.C., where his play Dysfunction Spelled Backward Is Family was presented.
He is the author of Minding the Edge: Strategies for a Fulfilling, Successful Career as an Actor.
Windy City Times: Hi, Carl. Are you originally from Deerfield, Illinois?
Carl Menninger: No, I am originally from New York. I grew up in Western Springs [Illinois], then taught school in Deerfield.
WCT: How did you wind up in Washington?
CM: I wound up here because my partner is from here. We commuted back and forth until there was a job at American University and I applied for it. Now I am teaching here.
WCT: Do you teach theater?
CM: I was head of the theater program for a while, then I stepped down after eight years and now I am a member of the faculty. It is exciting and a great job.
WCT: Where did you meet your partner?
CM: I met him when I was 10 years old so I have known him for forty-something years. He is a friend of the family and my brother in laws roommate in college. That was the connection.
We have been together for 15 years. We didn't get together when I was 10 years oldthere would be something wrong with that!
WCT: Did you study theater in school?
CM: Yes, I studied at Northwestern. That was where I got my undergraduate degree. I got my graduate degree from Emerson College in Boston.
WCT: You worked in Chicago theater often after that?
CM: I did. I worked at Victory Gardens and Chicago Dramatists, then as an assistant in a couple of places, [including] the now-defunct Body Politic. I worked with David Bell at Drury Lane. I also worked freelance as a director.
I am well acquainted with Chicago. I have been in D.C. for 13 years. It has been great being back in Chicago for THIS.
WCT: Did you cast this show?
CM: Yes. My family and friends still live there, so it was easy to go back and forth. I would come in for the castings and production meetings. That is the nice thing about teaching and having a nontraditional schedule. I could get on a plane of Friday and come back on a Sunday night. That all supported my ability to direct the show.
WCT: What attracted you to THIS?
CM: It is well-written. Melissa James Gibson is a smart playwright. Her ability with language is really impressive. She is one of the writers on [TV shows] House of Cards and The Americans. She has written several plays. That was the first thing that drew me to it.
I also feel that there is audience appeal to this play. There are many people in that demographic of the characters onstage, people that are about to turn 40, people that are parents, and people going through significant changes.
There is also the fact a woman is going through a divorce and grieving a dead child. I don't think that is a very common experience.
WCT: What are your thoughts on the gay character?
CM: I think she did a great job with it. When Joe Zarrow came in to audition he was from the start the perfect person. We knew immediately that was our Alan.
I think it is nice to see a play with gay characters and the play is not about gay themes. It is not about a gay issue. He is a person in the way that any one else is a person in it. He goes through the same struggles that every human being goes through.
I teach a course about gay literature onstage. For so many years it was about how people deal with coming out and the AIDS crisis. THIS just has a gay character in it. To me that speaks a lot about where we are in our culture. Now we don't care so much if someone is straight or gay, we just have our friends.
WCT: Where did the idea about using doors all over the set come from?
CM: We got that from Melissa James Gibson, who has always had a fascination with doors and hallways because it is not one place or the other. She calls them "cuspy" places.
All the transitions that we did are not written in the script. We wanted the sense of people moving in and out of these doors.
One direction I gave Katie-Bell Kenney, the set designer, is that I wanted lots of doors. It is a little bit like an Escher drawing in the sense that people go in and out of these doors but get nowhere. She is such a great designer and what she came up with.
Jared Gooding did a great job of lighting them from behind. There are only certain times the doors are lit so it changes the mood of the scenes and the location.
WCT: What are you working on next?
CM: I have written a play, called How Straight People Ruin Everything: A Modern Romance. It is a response to [dating apps] Grindr, Tinder and Scruff. It is this notion that sex has become transactional. One of the characters in the play says, "We text better than we talk, we fuck better than we make love." It is about a straight guy seeking his green card and marries his gay best friend. What they develop is a sexless marriage but with intimacy that many people crave. I hope it speaks to a lot of people both gay and straight.
THIS plays now through Sunday, Aug. 28, at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Ave. Tickets and information can be found by calling 773-891-8985 or visiting WindyCityPlayhouse.com .