Birthday Boy by Chris Newbound. Directed by Wes Grantom.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
James Ludwig and Tara Franklin; photo provided
"Everyone sitting around and sharing. . ."
At the Unicorn Theatre, part of the Stockbridge location of the Berkshire Theatre Group, a new, locally grown play is being offered as an end-of-season production. It is a world premiere. As I’ve noted many times before this summer world premieres are both risky and fun. We don’t know what we’ll get, even if we’ve been informed about the new play. We go expectantly, hoping for another major triumph. We probably pray a little, as well, pray for success and for a truly happy experience. To find a total reward is often much more difficult than we like to believe. More often we get a play like "Birthday Boy" - a great idea realized nicely to a particular point and then, well, not so much.
The basic problem with "Birthday Boy" is simple: there really is no play there, just an extended sketch, an idea that could play out in so many ways but instead replays itself constantly and leaves the audience with an ambiguous ending that merely stops, rather than ends, the play. The writing is lovely; it is poignant, funny, lyrical and dramatic. The characters are very interesting also: quirky, withdrawn, exuberant, humiliating, imaginative. The plot is simple and resolvable, but its structure, awkward and uneven, takes it down a lonely pathway to a brick wall. That will not do, Mr. Playwright.
According to the program, this play has had at least five readings or workshops. I am told that it has grown from two characters to four characters. Those four are the right four, but it could use a fifth (odd numbers usually work better in relationship plays) to take it that big step upward into a drama with wit that effectively deals with injured relationships. For that is what we have here: a drama with wit that deals with injured relationships.
Matt and Arianne are married. They have two young kids. Their marriage is strong but it is dominated by the wife whose husband is somewhat cold, somewhat withdrawn, rather reluctant to express much to anyone else. Matt, after four months, finally meets a new colleague, Melora, whose own marital relations are strained by circumstances involving cancer, a brother-in-law’s death, isolation and games-playing. These two are not compatible. Yet their attraction for one another is undeniable. When Arianne’s student, Julian, pays an unanticipated visit to her at home and Matt doesn’t show up for his own birthday party things change. . .or at least they should. It’s a funny thing, but really, things don’t. End of play.
Obviously there is much more to the play. But simply put this is what happens. Matt has a fantasy and then can’t act upon it. Melora has one too, but she is even more retiring about all this than Matt. Arianne suffers a physical trauma and Julian won’t go home. But he seemingly does for we never see him again and Matt and Arianne continue their half-romance marriage.
Matt is played by the very handsome, easy to look at James Ludwig. His character is so very withdrawn that his funny barbs sometimes get a snicker when a laugh is due them but his delivery as the character is so tight and limiting that this limits the reactions. This sort of delivery is perfect for Matt but Ludwig loses in the battle for recognition. He does so well by this character that the actor really does disappear and we’re only left with his written ego, Matt. Ludwig must be an excellent actor to make this man seem so real, so accessible. He plays the subtext and the text, the super-ego and the ego. This is a very fine performance by a man on the verge of a major career on the stage.
His wife, Arianne, is played quite handsomely by Keira Naughton. An actress whose work has been sometimes wonderful, sometimes questionable, here she hits on all cylinders. She runs the gamut of emotions from A to Q - as far as the playwright will let her go in this script - and each step is characterized by control and emotional savvy and wit and personal authorship. Naughton really gets this woman and puts her on stage full-blown and in charge. When she loses control of her environment and her plans for it, she is a ballistic ball-of-fire ready to open up all cylinders and let fly. Arianne is sometimes hard to like, often difficult to love, but we never lose our respect for her and that is really something.
Her rival for Matt’s attention is Melora, played with panache by Tara Franklin. In every role she has undertaken on these stages Franklin has proven herself to have every necessary emotion at her fingertips. Her portrayal here of a Holly Golightly wannabe is delightful. Her sense of esprit is light and airy and right on target. She manages the sometimes quixotic changes in her character with ease and makes it seem as though the playwright really knows his business. She has been trusted with the task of making odd stories seem real; she does it effectively. If only she had a play to play with and not a Saturday-Night sketch extended to a full evening to be saddled with instead.
Nick Dillenburg makes the most of his pivotal role as Julian. Devotion sits well on his face, hands, body and voice and he is quite believable as the love-struck student.
Director Wes Grantom has choreographed this show like a silent movie with visible stage-hands moving a lot of set pieces on and off the stage while the principal actors stand around in a limbo-light not quite finished with their scenes. There is a beauty in his vision as it is carried out by the actors and staff. He has, I am certain, helped the development of the characters but he has left in scripted anomalies that should have been addressed in rehearsal, things that might not strike you as odd or peculiar in a reading but which stand out awkwardly in the playing of the piece (One such instance is the lack of relationship of an actor to a prop, a sort of "which doesn’t belong in this picture" sort of setup).
The quirky and distracting set is the work of Kenneth Grady Barker. The simple costumes are nicely executed to Charles Schoonmaker’s designs. Derek Wright uses the theatrical lighting as though it was watercolor paints splashed on a heavy sheet of vellum.
Unique is the word for a world premiere. It is something to cherish in that it is something different. In this case there is a beautifully realized incomplete play that shows the playwright’s talents and shortcomings equally well. It is an excellent showcase of many talents, and abilities, and it is, perhaps, the most important step on the journey to a major career. Only time will tell.
Birthday Boy plays at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, MA through September 3, then closes but will reopen on September 29 and play through October 16. For more information contact the box office at 413-298-5576.