The über-realistic set of Gas For Less, by far my favorite part of the experience

In Auburn, Alabama, where I went to college, one of the best places to get fried chicken was inside a gas station off of Highway 280. The place was “country-fied” with a K and always smelled freshly mopped with Pine-Sol—a scent that I personally find revolting. But the chicken was tasty, and the Coke was cold.

In all those years that I patronized the fuel pump and the chicken fryer, I overheard lots of conversations. The unknowingly elite college students talked about their weekends hiking in the nearby state park, while the locals bonded over their John Deere engines. I think you could call it gentrification—albeit of a different sort than we’re used to in Chicago—the way my tiny college town was slowly encroaching on its neighbors in rural Alabama.

I’m slowly getting to my point, if a little less directly than usual. I’ve been thinking about the Goodman Theatre’s production of Brett Neveu’s new play Gas For Less (which runs through June 22nd) and trying to figure out why I disliked it so. For those of you who don’t know, Neveu is a breakout Chicago playwright who has recently decamped for California; his plays are getting produced here often though, and judging from some of the past productions that I’ve seen (American Dead, 4 Murders, Eric LaRue), I think he has talent, particularly for sifting out the twisted from the mundane.

But I can’t recommend Gas For Less, which takes place in a gas station in a gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago. A young man who is trying to run his grandfather’s gas station has to deal with crime, mounting fuel prices, and an offer from The Man (a corporate buyout). The potential for good drama is high.

But it just didn’t pan out for me. I guess I’ve been thinking about my little gas station off of Highway 280 and how—before the days of pay at the pump—you’d go inside to get that cold Coke or that chicken and you’d overhear all kinds of things. Getting gas—even at $4.56 a gallon—is a great equalizer, and a station as good of a Petri dish as any for Neveu’s talents. In Gas For Less, the grandson doesn’t really confront any of these issues directly. He just sits there and whines. Not to mention that, since the gas station isn’t doing so well, not so many people come in. Which means a lot of staring at the same characters. (For me, this meant studying the set, which was über-realistic and by far my favorite part of the experience.)

My other complaint: The dialogue is boring. Neveu structures two acts around two Chicago Bears football games. This means the characters—when they’re not talking about how the neighborhood has changed or the rampant crime that plagues them—spend an inordinate amount of time staring at a TV the audience can’t see. They yell things about Rex Grossman and talk about football maneuvers. Yawn. Trust me, if you want this experience, I’m sure you can find a rabid Bears’ fan who will let you sit in his/her living room for free.

Photograph: Peter Wynn Thompson Courtesy of the Goodman Theatre