Thursday, February 5, 2015

A play close to Perfect

A perfect cast for A Future Perect.  Photos: Cragi Bailey.

Ken Urban's A Future Perfect (at SpeakEasy Stage through this weekend) comes saddled with some heavy baggage: its playwright is white and male.  And (I'd guess) straight.

So even though he clearly has one of the subtlest, smartest dramatic voices to come out of the Huntington's playwriting fellowship program, he never got much traction locally (indeed, I believe now he's based in New York); I guess the politics of the local scene were just against him. But perhaps the advent of Perfect means that's about to change (another of his recent plays, The Awake, was a hit in the Big Apple); at any rate I hope so.

Which isn't to say that Perfect is, in fact, perfect - but it's often close. And certainly its core is wonderful: although Urban covers familiar ground - a quartet of aging hipsters facing up to pregnancy, commitment, and career compromises - his central couple, Claire and Max, are observed with such balanced precision (and their dialogue is so naturally inflected) that their story comes off as fresh and immediate. It must be admitted, however, that Urban's treatment of his second duo, Alex and Elena, is less convincing; they feel slightly "constructed" to dramatic specs (or at least Elena does), and Urban sometimes seems to push them around like pieces on a thematic chessboard.

Still, even with Alex and Elena, Urban scores some surprising insights; and when he doesn't, at least he tiptoes up to the tricky (but honestly pondered) conflicts between the career track and the parent trap - not to mention the clash between holding onto your ideals and paying rents in Williamsburg or Park Slope. In  what may have been my favorite moment in the play, for instance, Max quits his job at PBS rather than acquiesce to Koch-Brothers-style censorship of a script (for a puppet show!) about the Iraq War.  So he has to depend on Claire's income - which comes from marketing digital devices from an Apple-like corporation, and turning a blind eye to the plight of its wage-slaves in China. Shilling for George W. Bush or Steve Jobs - they both count as moral slumming; but Max, confidently hip to his garage-band core, never seems to realize that.

Brian Hastert and Nael Nacer bond as a band.

Not that Urban ever presses such issues too hard; he simply lets the ironies accrue around his characters (like the accessories in their yuppie den, accurately imagined by Cristina Todesco). But given the persuasive acting on tap here, that's more than enough - for director M. Bevin O'Gara has once more drawn a suite of remarkably deft performances from a sterling cast. Local star Marianna Bassham somehow convincingly juggles Claire's many internal contradictions and impulses, while newcomer Brian Hastert makes man-boy Max a winningly easy-going emotional support (and foil). Likewise the reliable Nael Nacer brings a gentle shine to the emotionally stumbling Alex (who is utterly flummoxed by the prospect of fatherhood), and young Uatchet Jin Juch evinces remarkable poise in the role of Annabelle, a polite but confidently self-absorbed child actor for PBS. Only Chelsea Diehl struggles a bit with Elena, who's somewhat underwritten (even though her character is often in the political cross-hairs of the play).

The cast is so strong, in fact, that I found myself wishing (o rare!) that the action might last longer (certainly Urban too quickly calls it a wrap in his final scene). Many topics fly by that one feels could be further developed: the easy, band-mate camaraderie that seems to be accessible to men but not women, for instance - as well as prickly, rarely-voiced questions of educational and attitudinal "class."  I was also aware, however, that something in Urban's distinct voice depends on suggestion rather than explication; so perhaps I should be careful what I wish for, and simply savor the subtle pleasures of this perfectly beguiling play.

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