Review: Set Up (TheatreBam Chicago)

| September 14, 2013 | 2 Comments

Stephanie Sullivan and Lisa Witmer star in TheatreBam Chicago's "Set Up" by Dan Noonan, directed by George Keating. (photo by Michael Grossman)        
Set Up 

Written by Dan Noonan
Directed by George Keating
at Studio BE, 3110 N. Sheffield (map)
thru Oct 6  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
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Set Up is a real let down


Stephanie Sullivan, Jason M Hammond and Peter Civetta in TheatreBam Chicago's "Set Up" by Dan Noonan, directed by George Keating. (photo by Michael Grossman)

TheatreBam Chicago presents
Set Up

Review by Clint May 

One of the first leaps of logic one has to make to even accept the very premise of TheatreBam’s world-premiere of Set Up is the continued existence of blind dates. In a day and age when not having a digital profile—Facebook, LinkedIn, your company’s ‘About Us’ page—is suspicious in and of itself, one has to accept that these two people have decided to ignore the 21st century in one critical aspect. This is one of the first of many leaps we are expected to make in Dan Noonan’s romantic comedy that is set in our time but feels more like something Jerry Lewis would have considered but left untouched.

Stephanie Sullivan and Peter Civetta in TheatreBam Chicago's "Set Up" by Dan Noonan, directed by George Keating. (photo by Michael Grossman)Out on her 20-and-some-change blind date (seriously, you haven’t learned that internet background checking exists yet?) before she moves to Haiti for Doctors Without Borders, neurologist Cheryl (Stephanie Sullivan) is having a bad day. As she whines into her friend Mimi’s (Lisa Witmer) voicemail in a piece of extraordinarily clunky exposition, we learn that not only is she having a bad day and going on a blind date she’s not sure about – it’s her birthday. What a recipe for hijinks! It doesn’t help that the restaurant is still in previews and yet its neon sign has already somehow lost the “G” in “Enigma” for a groaner of scatological humor. Overseen by a would-be Francophile waiter (Jason M. Hammond) and a never-seen wife/chef who hates French culture, it has alternately the worst and most-interruptive service in history.

Running late to the date is the insurance lawyer Ted (Peter Civetta). Sweating profusely (from what we later learn is a reaction to Xanax), his obvious nervousness is not helped when Cheryl begins to self-sabotage by instantly demanding the reasons for his divorce. This is the first of many awkward conversations that anyone in their right minds would not endure on a first encounter. The rest of the production is devoted to slowly unraveling this duo’s motivations for their endurance. As they delve into every topic one should avoid on a first date (you’d think neither one had ever done this before), it becomes more and more clear that they have next to nothing in common. She’s a liberal Democrat, he a stalwart Republican. He obviously wants kids, she has made up her mind to avoid them. Why keep trying at all? It’s not a very romantic reason at the end of the day [Spoiler alert: they are both terribly lonely and desperate].

After a mid-show breath of air to check in with the people who set them up in the first place, we learn another reason for their putting up with what is obviously a train crash of a date. Ted’s irritating divorced frat-boy brother Fred (Greg Wenz) has refused to let him come see his niece and nephew if he can’t complete the date, while Chery’s friend Mimi is just too busy ignoring her own failing marriage to see that meddling in her friend’s affairs is counterproductive. That neither of these people has not had success in romance makes one wonder why two supposedly intelligent people with motivations of their own would let their wills be co-opted by two busybodys. (I always heard it was best to take advice from people who are where you want to be, not the opposite.)

Peter Civetta and Greg Wenz in TheatreBam Chicago's "Set Up" by Dan Noonan, directed by George Keating. (photo by Michael Grossman)

Then we discover that the preceding was all just a set of forgivable side effects of Cheryl and Ted’s medical disorders. Cheryl is cranky from low blood sugar due to her diabetes, and Ted is depressed to the point of a recent hospitalization. Still, Cheryl is misogynistic enough to state that “Hey, take it from a bitch—women can be bitches” (which echoes Fred’s own glib interpretation of women as naturally schizophrenic). No one can say Cheryl isn’t aware of her antagonistic personality nor Ted of his meekness. Still, I wonder if anyone who found the first scenes funny felt guilty when they found out that these people are afflicted with some serious medical baggage driving that eccentric behavior. At least it allows them a chink in their armors big enough to start talking as real human beings, which makes for a far more interesting intersection than the earlier comedy pratfalls that fall flat.

Directed by George Keating, the gauche events drag on just like the bad date that it’s meant to portray. Sullivan and Civetta never spark the chemistry necessary to make us root for their togetherness, while poor Hammond is hamstrung in a bizarrely written role that is largely unnecessary.

While comedy and horror share a similar need for the audience to suspend logic to a finite degree, at the very least, events still must adhere to their own internal logic as defined. Set Up runs running gags into the ground (e.g., why is the door announcement ring at the restaurant supposed to be funny?), exploits diseases for humor, and seems to have a generally poor attitude towards its female characters. Its ending is unnecessarily romantic for a show with such an acid tongue, and it doesn’t make up for its sins. Like most stories of blind dates from the pre-Information Age, this one will be more memorable as a horror story than a great match made in heaven.

Rating: ★½

Set Up continues through October 6th at Studio BE, 3110 N. Sheffield (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $20-$25, and are available by phone (773-465-8668) or online through BrownPaperTickets. (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 90 minutes, NO intermission)

Stephanie Sullivan and Peter Civetta in TheatreBam Chicago's "Set Up" by Dan Noonan, directed by George Keating. (photo by Michael Grossman)

Photos by Michael Grossman




Peter Civetta (Ted), Jason M. Hammond (Waiter), Stephanie Sullivan (Cheryl), Greg Wenz (Fred), Lisa Witmer (Mimi)

behind the scenes

George Keating (director), David Ferguson (scenic design), Mac Vaughey (lighting design), Michelle Shelton, Stephen Snyder (technical directors), Kaylee Oost (stage manager), Michael Grossman (photos)


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Category: 2013 Reviews, Clint May, New Work, Studio BE, TheatreBam Chicago, World Premier

Comments (2)

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  1. susan says:

    i think the reviewer is overlooking the possibility that the play was set 4-5 years ago; back when we had a new president and the differences between the old and new administrations were cause for thoughtful debate; when the events of 9-11 carried great impact, and facebook and twitter less so. in this light, the dialogue is smart and the themes timeless. the actors do a great job of making their struggles relevent and relatable–all with a strong wit and good humor. for a more balanced review, please check time out and the trib–then go see the play,

    • Clint May says:

      Maybe it was set a few years ago, but I saw less of a thoughtful debate and more the kind of “debate” that one sees on Crossfire, with Cheryl the abrasive liberal and Ted the meek conservative archetype. If the theme is truly timeless, it wouldn’t matter if it was set yesterday or five years ago either way.

      As I’ve reflected more on this show and why it has bothered me so much, it comes back to what I didn’t like about the movie Silver Linings Playbook and the musical Hero. Love and romance are—and I can’t emphasize this enough, —not a cure-all for the hurt and pain in life, and these two people may be finding a small reprieve from their own neuroses for a single night, but they never should have been manhandled into those situations to begin with. If any friend of yours tells you that the cure for your depression is a date, that’s not a good friend. If that friend is your divorced brother or unhappily married friend, really look that one over before you take that advice.

      What would be a more interesting play would have been these two people realizing that and standing up to the people (Mimi & Fred) and society that says they need someone in their lives to make them worthwhile, and to cut off all the cajoling to stop being alone and see themselves as worthy individuals with or without someone. I saw faint glimmers of that message here but if that could have been the star theme devoid of the distractions that TimeOut listed quite aptly, this would have been a fantastic show for the 21st century in league with Itamar Moses’ “Completeness” or Andrew Hinderaker’s “I Am Going to Change the World.” And any glimmers of that message were put down by the treacly ending anyway, which wanted to tie up in a bow what the preceding had made clear was messy.

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