PROVO — Okay, so keep the title of this post in mind and, under that pretext, follow me through a piece of logic for a minute…
First, what is this play? well, It’s a clever little concept of looking at a relationship through all of its worst moments – its fights. An interesting premise. Second, who’s making it? Well, The New Play Project, a passionate group of theater practitioners who want to foster local original content and content that specifically focuses on creating good LDS art that isn’t cheesy or cliche, but that speaks to more thoughtful and challenging issues.
For those two reasons you should see this play. for lots of others you shouldn’t…but I still hold to the title.
Here’s the thing: the clever concept is, I believe infringed upon by playwright Eric Samuelsen’s attempt to make the character’s also an exploration of how we play into gender stereotypes. Personally, I feel like it’s a matter of the piece trying to do two things at once that may not serve each other. I feel like this goal gets in the way of the much more novel and worthwhile concept of looking at a relationship through its fights. The tension of showing love and tenderness in the context of aggression and conflict is really intriguing, but here we get bogged down in cliche instead; in order to have a character struggling with gender stereotypes, they need to be conscious of them. It’s one thing to have a guy who like video games and is a total man-cliche, but who is clearly chaffing under those conventions. It’s entirely another to have one who is perfectly at peace with the fact that he is…which is what this character is as portrayed by Jack Welch. The same goes for the female (Paige Kempton); she essentially plays out like a crazy person who just snaps with no justifiable reason. You find yourself spending the whole time just hoping they break up because they are clearly a nightmare for each other. The other issue with the ‘fights’ is that they are largely cliche and largely lacking substance. One is about stock bathroom behavior (girls go in pairs/guys have urinal code) and one is about playing video games too much and not paying attention…these aren’t really worst moments or substantive moments of a relationship; they are the trivial spats of two generally unlikable people. And if there were variance in the fights, maybe a silly fight, maybe a passive aggressive fight, then a shouting fight, and if these fights had moments of tenderness, then I could really grab onto something and empathize. But all I’m given is milquetoast and triviality. With the notable exception of the last scene, which is intriguing, has stakes and is better written than the rest. I feel like the rest was a one-off to frame the last moment which felt like it was written with much more inspiration than the rest.
But here’s the other thing: I can totally see how a playwright would write a “generic” play intentionally, and give room for director Davey Morrison Dillard and the actors to bring meat to those bones. I think this script, though there may be a few details I deem as missteps, may have been aiming for. Material with that kind of flexibility is meant to require an approach where one creates a character and depth that is wholly extra-textual; it’s the type of work where an actor and director have the freedom to really decide who the “he” and “she” of the play are and then inject that character into creating interest and subtleties within the “cliché” material by seeing it through the lens of their specificities. It’s all about meaning and acting beyond words and not just leaning on your text. The problem here is, the actors, bless their hearts, are out of their depth if that is the goal. They seem to be trying and are perfectly nice people, but they address the text directly and don’t have the depth of experience or thought (or either didn’t have the direction or the know how to heed the direction they got) that would enable them to bring more to the table and create this extra textual world.
But here’s the OTHER other thing, and the reason I think you should go see this play: These are directors and producers and actors who are working on this and many other plays with no budget, no pay, and the time they can eek out between work and family, and they do this out of the kindness of their hearts because they love theater and want to produce meaningful art with a local voice that has something of substance to say. That is a noble goal, and one that is demonstrably harder to do with eight people in the audience, which is how many were there the night I attended (audiences have steadily grown since then). It’s hard to correct the mistakes I’ve mentioned above without excitement and support and feedback. So do them and yourself a favor: GO…and tell your friends to go. and the more they produce and the more they have responsive audiences giving feedback, the more they will recognize missteps and correct them, the more they will develop the acting depth to pull off that extra-textual material, the more playwrights can make the adjustments audience feedback illuminates…the more good local theater we can have in Utah. So don’t fault them for their lack of experience…give them experience by giving them an audience…and I believe that audience will be honored by the raising of the quality of work to meet it.