from Chicago Social Magazine, June 2003

THE BUZZ/Theater


From the delightfully warped mind of playwright Wendy MacLeod comes a no-frills play about male bonding

By Gina Bazer

Wendy MacLeod couldn't care less what the neighbors might think. In her play, The House of Yes (made into a movie starring Parker Posey in 1997) she tackled incest without batting an eyelash. SCHOOLGIRL FIGURE (a cult favorite) is an eating disorders comedy. And one of her newest plays, Juvenilia, involves a group of naughty college friends luring the Christian fundamentalist down the hall into a three-way. But on a spring day at Peet's Coffee and Tea in Evanston, the darker side of humanity is put on hold, as MacLeod, clad in an oversized top, baggy pants, and comfy clogs (just back from getting a massage, a little worried that her auburn gair looks greasy), notices a baby crying and gives him a "you poor thing" look. Twisted mind aside, she's just your average suburban mom.

"I feel a responsibility to think interesting thoughts, as opposed to having a knee-jerk response in either direction," she says calmly between sips of coffee. Take one of her more political plays, The Water Children: Instead of stock characters representing each side of the abortion debate, it's about a pro-choice actress who takes a part in a right-to-life commercial and proceeds to have a relationship with a very articulate, even charming, die-hard pro-lifer. "I think one of my playwriting strategies has often been to create a character who presents the opposite point of view in a way that is persuasive," she says.

MacLeod's characters aren't the only ones with a penchant for persuasiveness. When the playwright was in first grade, she convinced a classmate to sell her the part of Wendy in Peter Pan. "I felt it was my due, since that was my name," she laughs. "Clearly, I was a shark early on, determined to make it." Now a visiting film and theater professor at Northwestern University, MacLeod studied theater at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, before going on to the Yale School of Drama for playwriting. She lived and worked in New York until returning to Kenyon in 1990 to teach and write. (While she's lived in Gambier for the past 12 years with her husband and two young sons, the D.C. area native still considers herself an East Coaster, spending summers with her family in New Hampshire.)

"In many ways I feel like I dodged a bullet by finding such interesting work. I think most people don't-I think most people work for their paycheck," she says. "And so one of the things I try to do with my plays is explore the path not taken. How would I feel if I were a junior executive at Seagram's instead of a playwright?"

MacLeod parlayed this question into Things Being What They Are, a comedy about two men who become unlikely fast pals, now at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre. Bill McGinnis is a young and insecure cog in the wheel at Seagram's who is stuck in his empty new condo awaiting furniture and his wife's return from a "final" visit with her "ex-lover." His neighbor, Jack Foster, a brash, seen-it-all forty-something divorce, comes over uninvited, and some serious-and seriously funny-male bonding ensues.

For a playwright who's know for her proclivity to shock, this play is surprisingly normal in a suburban angst kind of way-and MacLeod is OK with that. "Some of my plays are out there in terms of subject matter," she admits-and proudly. "But I don't want to write the same play every time. And I feel like there is this great hunger for story, as opposed to language pyrotechnics or image pyrotechnics. I think that's all right. I think it's all right just to write a realistic play that has a good story with characters that you invest in."

Her investment paid off in Jack and Bill. These are men rich in both self-deprecating humor and emotion. Again, no knee-jerking here: Jack may be a loudmouth jerk hellbent on destroying his ex-wife's budding relationship-not to mention her new boyfriend's flashy pick-up truck-but he takes a sincere interest in helping a deflated Bill take control of his life and start actually liking himself: "What you need to do is stop saying you're sorry. What you need to do is change your personal mantra," Jack advises. Bill asks, "To what?" And Jack answers, "I have done all a man can do." In lesser hands, this might sound like Oprah. But with MacLeod's ironic touch, it never feels pat or precious in the moment. She just has this way of arriving at truth through a sardonic back door.