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By Donald V. Calamia
One characteristic of our small professional theaters that I find most appealing is their willingness to take risks. With lower overhead and often a different customer mix than their bigger-budget siblings, our storefront theaters are the perfect venues for new playwrights to have their voices heard, or for established authors to test their latest script. Not every new play is a gem, of course; some are forgotten the minute the show closes. The rare few, however - such as the 2007 Wilde Award-nominated All Childish Things by Joseph Zettelmaier - move on to other venues and/or launch sequels.
Somewhere in-between falls The Best of Me by writer and director Lance Alan, an intriguing yet flawed new work staged by Detroit's coolest theater, The Abreact, at Detroit's Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue.
Alan's story unfolds inside the boarded up, mostly empty home of a Man and Woman who are struggling to survive daily life amidst their insanity. Having sold most of their earthly possessions, the proud, loving couple has no money left to pay bills or buy food, and so the two are reduced to eating the occasional mouse or bug that scurry past.
Their security is threatened by an 18-year-old neighbor who comes to collect money for cutting their lawn. Once inside, the Kid becomes curious about the only piece of furniture left in the living room: an armoire that belongs to the Woman's sister. He returns later, armed with an ax to gain entry into the locked cabinet. But what he discovers instead stuns him and the audience alike.
The playwright's O. Henry-esque ending makes it difficult to offer detailed constructive criticism, since to do so would reveal the surprise. Yet those shocking final moments also unveil gaps in the storytelling that caused at least one person on opening night to walk out asking, "So what the heck was THAT all about?"
And to be honest, I'm not sure, either - partly because of that ending, but also because of its absurdist trappings. (The work somewhat fails a Theatre of the Absurd test espoused by expert critic Martin Esslin: "[They] may be seen as nonsense, [but] they have something to say and can be understood.")
Part of the problem is structural: Is the audience experiencing the play "in the moment" - delusions and all? That is, is the story unfolding in a real-time, linear fashion? (If so, the act one conclusion becomes a red-herring, for example, and doesn't make sense - for reasons I won't explain.)
Or are we jumping back and forth through time - and watching certain past moments as they actually occurred? (Lighting changes were often trying to tell us SOMETHING - but what that was couldn't be discerned.)
Alan leaves much unclear. While the Woman's back story is slowly revealed in tasty, tantalizing morsels, the cause of the Man's insanity is left mostly untouched. (There are a couple of assumptions you can make, but that's about all.) And much attention is focused on the Man's fixations with little or no payoff, such as the oft-stated line, "He's an exuberant, little man." Who is he referring to? (The actor is too tall for it to be about himself.)
Plus, too much time is wasted on the mystery of the numbers 1 4 6 - which is actually answered via an off-hand comment in the first act, but you might not catch it until you know the story's resolution.
In fact, the two acts almost feel like separate plays; each has a different intensity, pace and focus.
Alan's story is at its best when it's centered on the interactions between the Man and Woman. However, the story begins to drift in the second act with the arrival of the Kid and Girl. Although their presence is necessary - it drives the plot to its conclusion - Alan spends too much time telling THEIR story, and much of it isn't interesting or important to the plot. (The Kid DOES serve another important function, however: He provides the show's brief comic relief.)
Despite the criticism, there's much to like in Alan's script. For one thing, it draws attention to the invisible people who exist on the fringes of society - such as the old, the shut-ins, the mentally ill and the forgotten - and how others treat them. Plus, his dialogue is often sharp and poetic.
With some heavy, judicious editing, however - which includes cutting about 20 minutes from the script - the result could become an intense, yet satisfying psychological thriller.
Some of that exists in the current incarnation, thanks to powerful and emotional performances by Linda Rabin Hammell as the Woman and Thomas Hoagland as the Man.
Hammell's Woman is the more introverted and seemingly normal of the two, which makes her more insane moments effectively jarring. (You'll cringe when she takes a knife to cut her upper thigh - another inexplicable moment in the show, other than she's obviously crazy.)
But it's Hoagland who fully embraces and envelops his character. Every twitch, every eye movement and every line is thoughtfully and carefully planned and executed. It's a startling and flawless portrayal from start to finish.
Despite good performances elsewhere, Sean McGettigan (Boy) and Molly McMahon (Girl) have been cast opposite two powerhouses and are outclassed in this production.
The Abreact at The Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit. Fri.-Sat., through June 7 (plus Sun., Jun 1). Tickets: $10. For information: 313-247-5270 or www.theabreact.com.
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