Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Love on the run

They'll always have Paris; Jack Weatherall and Rae C. Wright count the hours as Mickey and Jean. Photo by Meghan Moore.

When a playwright leans on the laugh lines, and blows his characters up into caricatures, it usually means that he or she is desperate, because there's really no underlying conflict in the script's set-up, or no believable story arc, or its internal structure is a mess.

But what's striking about Richard Dresser's The Last Days of Mickey and Jean, the much-drubbed new comedy wrapping up its run at the Merrimack Rep, is that none of these things are true. The playwright has a bead on the central conflict of his eponymous pair, and has thought up a classic triangle through which to explore it. And his scenes actually track something close to a traditional sense of development, with a long sequence of what should be bruising revelations leading to a climactic dilemma. Indeed, if anything, Mickey and Jean has a better internal structure than the playwright's far-superior View of the Harbor, which premiered at Merrimack last year, and it's certainly more coherent than, say, such recent hits as the Nora's Not Enough Air or the Huntington's Becky Shaw.

Yet Dresser pushes the surface of his script relentlessly toward farce, and forced farce at that. Which is all the stranger because in a haunting coda, he suddenly does a 180 and delivers one of the best, most evocative stretches of new dramatic writing I've heard all year. Too bad it's only a few pages long!

So what went wrong? Why didn't the mature, autumnal mood of those last five minutes pervade, or at least inform, the previous 90?

Sorry, I wish I had an answer to that one, but I don't; my only guess is that Mr. Dresser is rather pressed for time these days - he's also writing the book for the higher-profile Red Sox musical at the A.R.T., and somehow I get the feeling that the Merrimack, which has spent the last few years developing his career, may have suddenly gotten the short end of the stick now that he's in the major leagues, as it were. Certainly Dresser's script gives the impression of having been thoughtfully structured, but finished at high speed, and "punched up" to hide the resulting holes in its dialogue.

The play's premise, in case you haven't heard, is intended to be a wicked riff on the last days of former Southie kingpin Whitey (a.k.a. James J.) Bulger and longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, who have been eluding the law now for something like fifteen years (at left, a recent photo claimed to be of the pair in Italy). Bulger's career, which encompassed at least 18 murders, multiple robberies, a thriving cocaine business as well as the usual Southie rackets, and a famously close relationship with both the State House (through little brother Billy) and the FBI, has by now spawned an entire genre of crime fiction and film. Add to that his rumored sexual escapades with both men and women, as well as various sightings at drag bars, and you have a truly protean cultural figure.

Maybe too protean - there's simply more crime in Bulger's past than can be neatly tucked into the ninety minutes or so that Dresser alots himself, especially given the blackly comic spins the playwright gives the mobster's current plight and our fascination with it (the feds may not be able to track Whitey/Mickey down, but in one of the play's funnier gambits, the AARP still manages to). Dresser smartly perceives, however, that the dramatic essence of Bulger's story isn't his life of depravity but his talent for betrayal, the way he managed to stay afloat for decades by playing one criminal or governmental faction against another (even in his final escape, Whitey dumped his common-law wife for his mistress at the last minute). Thus the tantalizing question hovering over The Last Days of Mickey and Jean - will Jean betray Mickey? - is precisely the right one. And the script's bleakly satiric tone is likewise just right for the couple's isolated, pathetically paranoid existence, dashing from one safe deposit box to another in locale after locale (the play's set in a nameless hotel room in Paris). Dresser even provides them with the perfect foil - a nondescript, seemingly decent gent at the hotel bar who could offer Jean something like an escape hatch.

But the playwright errs in submerging Mickey's pathology beneath a standard sitcom persona of weary husbandry, even as he inflates Jean into a blowsy, too-needy whiner. And he fumbles the revelations which complicate both her own and her beau's back stories. The result is that Dresser never actually gets to the real comic drama he has set up for himself - we can almost feel it floating just out of reach as he busies himself with failed nods to Whitey's more outré escapades (such as the sudden appearance of a drag queen straight out of Jacques).

And alas, director Charles Towers actually exacerbates Dresser's mistakes by running with them. Thus the usually reliable Jack Weatherall almost makes no impression as Mickey, and the talented Rae C. Wright wears out her welcome as an over-the-top Jean (who comes equipped with an accent that hovers over the Boston area without ever landing in any particular neighborhood). And third wheel Christopher McHale seems to be totally thrown by that drag get-up, and never recovers in his final scenes.

But oddly enough, I hope that we actually haven't seen the last days of Mickey and Jean; the ideas behind it are just too good to be buried with this irritating first iteration. Several reviewers have remarked that the production felt more like a workshop than a finished production; my secret wish is that the script does, indeed, go back into development. Certainly the Boston area (if not Whitey Bulger) deserves better. And who knows, maybe in a year or two, once Dresser has gotten it into shape, we'll see it again at the A.R.T.