Review: “Small Jokes About Monsters” at 16th Street Theater

“Monsters” out by Midway is worth the journey for Steven Strafford’s surprising family drama

Monsters out by Midway is worth the journey for Steven Strafford’s surprising family drama at 16th Street Theater

Theater review by Kris Vire

From left: Esteban Andres Cruz, Eric Slater and Christopher Wayland Jones

The title of Steven Strafford’s play, which assumes the form of the traditional family-secrets drama only to go off in several unexpected directions, is explained—at least partially—in the piece’s very first lines.

Brothers Ryan (Esteban Andres Cruz), John (Eric Slater) and Derek (Christopher Wayland Jones) are arriving at a rented beach house, having come from their father’s funeral. Ryan, the middle brother of the three, is relating his theory that there are “three kinds of funny people,” which he has named for classic Japanese movie monsters: Godzillas, Mothras and Gameras. Conveniently, each of the brothers corresponds to one of Ryan’s types.

From left: Eric Slater, Christopher Wayland Jones, Esteban Andres Cruz

Ryan—an actor, gay, kind of a mess—diagnoses himself, correctly, as a Godzilla: the type who’s always “on,” jokes destroying everything in their path: “people who walk into a room announcing they are funny, demanding you know that they are funny,” as Ryan says. John, the oldest, a little conservative and a little cynical, is a Mothra—hovering in the air waiting to unleash a single high-precision joke bomb, “one flap of their wings and BAM!” The youngest, Derek, is a people pleaser—and in Ryan’s estimation, a Gamera: “the funny people who are not planning to be funny.”

The three men were varying degrees of estranged from the father they just buried, who (like Ryan, we soon learn) struggled with alcohol and drugs for much of his life. The elephant in the room is actually an envelope in Ryan’s jacket pocket, containing a letter from Dad with instructions to open it only after his death.

From left: Esteban Andres Cruz, Eric Slater, Shariba Rivers, Christopher Wayland Jones

But before that can happen, the other elephant arrives to claim the room for herself: the boys’ Mom (Shariba Rivers), long since divorced from their father and with plenty of ill to speak about the dead. Neither John nor Ryan is thrilled at her arrival at the invitation of appeaser Derek. Mom isn’t quite a monster, but she can be careless with her weapons of emotional mass destruction.

The opening of the envelope occurs early enough in the play’s 90-minute runtime that I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal the letter’s gist: All three brothers are set to receive an inheritance, but Ryan is getting more than the other two, for A Serious Reason their father refuses to divulge.

No one seems to have any idea what that reason could be, but neither can anyone simply let it go. To reveal any further plotting from this point on would be a disservice to Strafford and to 16th Street Theater’s solid production. Suffice it to say that secrets begin to come out, but Strafford is never headed exactly where you might anticipate. All too often in this type of work, you can feel like you’re a couple of steps ahead of the characters; not so here, by a long shot.

Christopher Wayland Jones, left, and Eric Slater

It’s a delight to see the four adept actors in 16th Street’s staging bouncing off one another—not least because not every theater in town would cast these four actors of varying ethnic backgrounds as a biological nuclear family in a contemporary drama, without going out of its way to explain it all. That’s a credit to 16th Street, Strafford, and director Kristina Valada-Viars—who’s also an actor herself, and perhaps thus has an imagination more open to letting good actors act.

And that’s what you get here. Even when the circumstances of the plot reach their most jolting, fine-tuned work by the likes of the stalwart Slater and the vibrant Cruz (a performer so full of joy Marie Kondo would tell you to order him by the dozen) keeps you leaning forward in your seat.

Jones finds some nice shading in the character given the shortest shrift by the playwright; Rivers, working against her natural warmth as the sometimes cruelly blunt mother, can feel like she’s pushing a bit. But as a study of humor as defense mechanism and of the fractured and sometimes fractious nature of memory, Strafford’s Monsters is worth the trek to the suburbs.

Small Jokes About Monsters

16th Street Theater (6420 16th Street, Berwyn, IL). By Steven Strafford. Directed by Kristina Valada-Viars.

Cast: Esteban Andres Cruz, Christopher Wayland Jones, Shariba Rivers, Eric Slater.

Designers: Eleanor Kahn (scenic), Cat Wilson (lighting), Rachel Sypniewski (costumes), Barry Bennett (sound/music), Victor Bayona & Rick Gilbert of R&D Choreography (violence).

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes; no intermission. Through February 17. Tickets ($22) at

Photographs by Anthony Aicardi.

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