Saturday, January 24, 2015

Short cuts: Midsummer and The Best Brothers

I'm late with comments on Apollinaire's Midsummer and Merrimack Rep's The Best Brothers - and alas, that's basically because I didn't have too much encouraging to say about either one.

Courtland Jones and Brookes Reeves.
Midsummer has already closed, so I'll be brief - this was a case of a talented cast being undone by a play so mediocre I struggled to stay awake through its short running time. In fact I'm not sure I succeeded, I may have missed a scene - which slightly surprised me, as at first I thought playwright David Grieg was toying with an interesting premise: his two leads described the madcap antics of the weekend they fell in love even as they acted them out. This promised a few intriguing conceptual wrinkles in what looked like (and eventually proved to be) a pretty standard version of the Britcom/gritcom/romcom template that has replaced the classic screwball comedy. 

But first a word about these new millennial vehicles; in the new screwball comedy, the beautiful-but-stuck-in-a-rut girlfriend generally plays the straight man (gone are the free female spirits of yesteryear), and her immature swain induces all the comic complications; meanwhile the whimsical tropes of the tradition (road trips, disguises, pet leopards) are replaced by awkward sexual humiliations and brushes with various underworlds and sub-cults (from which usually, at the finish, someone is "redeemed").  In Midsummer, Grieg painted strictly, and rather mechanically, by these numbers, aside from his unusual framing device - which, alas, came to nothing. I kept expecting some competitive perspectives on his couple's shaggy-dog love story to emerge; I would have been happy if even a hint of How-I-Met-Your-Mother self-awareness kicked in.  But - zip.  Nada. Zero.

Still, the gorgeous Courtland Jones and the versatile Brooks Reeves were appealing enough to make the tedium go down easy; they even almost managed to sell Gordon MacIntyre's godawful songs. But I will say that even though I'm an admirer of director Danielle Fateux Jacques, the driving force behind the intrepid Apollinaire, I felt she didn't attend to the director's key job in any romcom, particularly one as weak as this: we never saw the precise moments at which Jones and Reeves fell genuinely in love.  Grieg was no help in this regard, it's true; but when it comes to romantic comedy, somehow love has to find a way.

Meanwhile, up at Merrimack, the talented Charles Towers was similarly trying to breathe life into another problematic new play, The Best Brothers by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor.  To be honest, I think I dozed off in this one, too; sorry about that - I am getting older, and perhaps I'm slowly turning into a reincarnation of the late critic Caldwell Titcomb, who softly snored through everything he saw.

But in my own defense, I seem to still be able to stay awake and focused through real plays (like Vanya and Sonia, etc., at the Huntington, or A Future Perfect at SpeakEasy) - but I guess in my dotage I'm just likely to nod off through the sorts of gestures toward a real play that people like MacIvor (and Grieg) contrive.

Photo: Meghan Moore
For in The Best Brothers, much is hinted at, but little comes to real dramatic fruition. The action, such as it is, follows two secretly competitive siblings, Hamilton and Kyle, whose mother Bunny has just died beneath the crushing weight of a drag queen named PiƱa Colada, who fell on the poor woman from a passing Gay Pride float. Clearly from this unlikely, quasi-symbolic event the playwright hopes to spin a bemused take on accepting the surreal and humiliating vicissitudes of life - something that one brother, the straight-laced (and just plain straight) Hamilton obviously has trouble doing. Gay brother Kyle, of course, rolls more easily with such surreal punches; and as we watch, the underlying tensions between these two come to a slow boil through petty squabbles over things like the obituary and who-mom-loved-best - although predictably, Hamilton eventually learns to accept Kyle's oh-don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude (particularly when it comes to who deserves to be loved and who doesn't).

Now honestly, I long for the day when it's the hetero guy who's looser and more hip than the gay guy (something I've observed plenty of times in real life, I assure you) - but I guess that's still a few decades off when it comes to what audiences will accept on the stage. I should also mention, however, the "third" brother in the mix - Bunny's greyhound, Enzo, who represents all that's untrainable about life and love, or something like that. We quickly grasp that Bunny loved Enzo best, despite his many foibles - and this unspoken fact, along with the obstreperous dog's fate, becomes another bone of contention, if you will, between the sparring brothers.

But alas, we never see the mysteriously endearing Enzo, and MacIvor has trouble pinning down the source of his appeal.  Likewise the author's episodic structure keeps undermining the momentum of his script, and his tactic of having each brother impersonate Bunny in turn comes off as, well - just oddly opaque. Although to be fair, none of these gambits play to this particular director's strengths - Towers is better known for his handling of darker, more haunted drama than his light touch with comedy. Perhaps as a result, everything here plays as slightly subdued - although the subtle turns by stars Michael Canavan and Michael Kux (above) are certainly up to Merrimack's vaunted acting standards. The show was apparently a hit up in Canada - so perhaps this production simply counts as a misfire. I will say this much - Ivor does express what's it like to share (or be forced to share) the exasperating love of a dog; and lovers of any and all breeds are sure to warm to that.

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