‘Posh’ at Steep Theatre: Rich British boys behaving horridly, on sure path to success
“Posh” by Laura Wade, at Steep Theatre extended through March 26. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
British playwright Laura Wade’s “Posh,” now on graphic display at Steep Theatre, drives home a somber message: Great wealth is a limitless ticket. Anything is possible or tolerable if you can hand over a blank check to pay the freight or pay for the damage.
Up to a critical point, this tumultuous but sharply written play appears to be about 10 male students at an exclusive English university who are carrying on a timeless tradition as members of the Riot Club. Once a year, the lads organize a grand dinner. Along with good food and great wine, the feast also includes side dishes of sex and drugs. At the end of the evening, they all pile into limo, train or airplane and zoom off to some improbable destination – whether domestic or foreign – to finish off their bacchanal.
But between dessert and exodus, the boys thoroughly trash the place where they are dining. They don’t just make a mess; they reduce the room and its contents – tables, chairs, wall fixtures, draperies, chandeliers – to one great pile of rubble. That done, they hand the proprietor a blank check to make things right, and depart.
Apparently, Wade modeled her fictional group after Oxford University’s historical Bullingdon Club and its well-documented shenanigans. Most of the play unfolds during the dinner as the formally weeded fellows settle into the evening, drink toasts to their history and mission, spar with each other for dominance and put a couple of newbies in their place.
It is a high-tension ensemble piece, laced with an edgy humor that turns progressively darker. There are games, challenges, penalties: Ten glasses of “sweetened” wine forced down in rapid succession; a whole bottle of wine consumed in one swig; vomiting. Director Jonathan Berry has forged a tight cadre of committed actors who never stray from character even when they’re on the periphery. No matter where your eye drifts, or what the center of action may be, you see only real people engaged in the moment.
Real people, that is, in a surreal aspect. And even within this dedicated band of hell-raisers, fissures develop when not everything goes according to plan. Getting absolute satisfaction in every detail simply means more to some of the guys than to others. Ire rises when the expected drugs are replaced by an explanation for the bungled purchase. And then a principled prostitute (the dryly professional Kendra Thulin) gets a really bad reaction. What’s to be done?
One among this clutch of Britain’s future leaders, a tall and willful sort named Alistair (Michael Holding as an authentic cock of the walk), turns for release to the next nearest female, Rachel, demure daughter of the innkeeper (Bryce Gangel). Now it isn’t funny – except to the boys, who urge each other to cross a line they all might individually respect. The revelers suddenly resemble an ugly mob, gangbangers in tails (splendid costumes by Stephanie Cluggish).
Dimitri, a dark and handsome youth of Greek extraction (Ryan Hallahan in a decadently suave turn), is right there with Alistair, insisting that whatever the group wishes should be their right. They are England’s best, and they know it. Their boundless wealth affirms it. But even the very, very rich can be stung: Dimitri is reminded that he is Greek, not a true Englishman. Not all the money in the world can change that. He is and ever shall be an outsider.
But enough of preliminaries. ’Tis the hour of historical continuance. Let the trashing begin. And so it does. Then in walks fair Rachel’s father (Alex Gillmor, a brick of bourgeois normalcy), outraged by the look he has seen on his daughter’s face. The lads are past caring, past deference, entirely beyond the conventions and restraints of decency. It will become awful – serious even by their reckoning.
Thus “Posh” pushes through what might be a first ending in retribution to a second, actual ending in reality: the world the way it wags. Rich boys will always be good old boys, and the most unbending of them shall inherit the power. Thus saith a knowingly smug, confidently soft-spoken emissary of the powerful (Will Kinnear) in speeches that bookend the play with chilling certitude. “Posh” isn’t a play about boys at all; it’s about the golden who rule.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com