Gas for Less
Gasoline, much like the theater, has become too expensive for the average American to consume on a regular basis. These days, before you fill up the tank and slap down the plastic, you must first decide whether that planned trip is really worth taking.
Such rising consumer stakes invaded the theater long ago and changed the way we view plays. If I’m going to cough up $70 for a single seat, the logic goes, I’d better get a witch who really flies. Burning a couple of gallons of unleaded on a leisurely afternoon drive now seems wasteful and frivolous. There are probably some audiences who will feel similarly about the Goodman’s quiet new Chicago-based play about a family-run North Side gas station taking its last gasp. Though it’s receiving a primo production at the careful hands of director Dexter Bullard, Brett Neveu’s Gas for Less is small and unassuming in its ambitions.
But the script represents a welcome departure from the Goodman’s airtight programming pipeline in which contemporary economic struggles—the price of gas, let’s say—are all but completely ignored unless they arise in one of the theater’s nonwhite plays. Neveu’s new work is neither flawless nor likely to have ubiquitous Sarah Ruhl–style appeal in other markets after this staging closes. But the freshness of this production and the caliber of work Neveu’s script brings out of this company of artists show us the playwright is touching a nerve that makes his collaborators feel alive.
We first see the manager (greasy-haired, fierce-eyed, spot-on Jairell) and the most regular regular (the wonderfully cacophonous Perry Jr.) of the Lincoln Avenue Gas for Less station on game day. Twentysomething Anthony is the third man in the family to run the joint, although his stubborn, Croatian-born grandpa (Brueler) still treats him like a stock boy. As the Bears and the Browns go head-to-head on a rabbit-eared television, the small trials that play out—the arrival of unpaid bills, the purchase of a Snapple—slowly, subtly reveal that this small business, once a neighborhood hub, is now on life support. Plenty of forces drag the place down: unrealistic management, the prices of fuel and real estate and, most deadly, the encroachment of franchise stations. But despite the obviousness of these villainous pressures, watching natural selection target men at the bottom of the food chain is still piercingly painful.
Like those of Kenneth Lonergan, Neveu’s characters needle each other over minutiae until the cumulative effect of these small brush strokes creates an impressionistic portrait of day-to-day drudgery. In this instance, much of the dialogue is ridiculously specific to Chicago. The merits of Jewel versus Dominick’s are hotly debated, a vigilant but completely unsupported mistrust of the Tribune is bandied about and everybody demonstrates irrational faith in doomed ball clubs. (Interestingly, Neveu’s polyglot ear for conversation tends to favor his nonwhite characters.)
All of Neveu’s characters are passive observers, which can be frustrating. Gas relies on the strange playwriting trend of late in which an offstage character’s blameless, accidental death serves as the primary source of emotion. Though we know that the inertia of the family proprietors —a refusal to adapt to the changing world—is key to their demise, you’ll still find yourself wishing you could watch them make a bad business decision rather than just hearing about it.
Even so, Neveu’s assessment of 9-to-5 North Side life feels like the work of a writer who’s lived it. And a nearly pitch-perfect cast fits his vision like a glove. Only Brueler as the foreign-born patriarch seems as though he’s still fleshing out a character.
But Gas for Less’s biggest contribution comes from director Bullard, who has reckless fun with proper conventions. The freedom he gives scenic designer Tom Burch and lighting designer Keith Parham is handsomely rewarded; what would normally be a garden-variety, uncanny recreation of a gas station has elements—specifically, a pink neon sign—best described as extra-theatrical.
What Gas for Less represents is a vanishing culture, a class of citizens priced out of their own homes, businesses and neighborhoods. Pending your view of American excess, this can be either a small tragedy or a reality check reminding us that such hard luck is what most global citizens endure. Either way, it’s nice to see the Goodman step up to the pump.