Encore Michigan

World Premiere: ‘Clutter’ at Theatre Nova exposes the pain of no do-overs in marriage

Review March 30, 2017 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Sometimes the writing of a play is so incredibly on the nose for the subject, the truth of the characters, the dialogue, the flow of the story makes you squirm a little in your chair. In a good way.

Such is the case with Clutter, a new play by Brian Cox and getting its world premier at Theatre Nova.

The story focuses on a man we only know as “Me.” He opens the story ruminating on the dissolution of his marriage as he hunts around his cluttered desk. Where do we go from here?” I wondered as I watched actor Phil Powers begin to unpack the character’s life and the role he played in his marriage going sideways, and then south all together.

Cox uses an interesting construct to take the audience to a worthwhile place. It must have been tricky to conceive and write, but it unfolds beautifully on stage. “Me” picks a woman (Tory Matsos) from the audience to help him tell the story. She is to be a prop, playing his wife. But Matsos character (described only as “woman” in the program) toggles between being the woman from the audience who is listening to his recollections and point-of-view on events–what he said, what he did, and what he didn’t do, etc.– and being the voice of our protagonist’s actual wife. She changes the part subtly with her eyes and timbre of voice, and it is very deft and effective, especially in Theatre Nova’s intimate space.

A third actor, called “Sir” in the program, is also plucked from the audience, in this case so “Me” can use him as a human prop to depict himself in various situations in the past as “Me” talks to the audience about his mistakes, his wrongs, where he was actually right, and some of his eternal truths he holds dear. “If someone tells you that they don’t love you any more, then they never did in the first place.”

This is not a play any writer writes in a week, or a month, or two months. Indeed, the author notes in the program that he finished the first draft on May 26, 2012. The fact that he knows the exact date five years ago tells me that this script was a personal journey and expression by the author. Also, for the dialogue and turns of phrase to hit so close to the bone of anyone whose marriage has dissolved, tells me it is impossible to think that Cox did not travel this gravelly, rutted path himself or at least witness it up close.

Directed by Diane Hill, the casting of the play couldn’t be better. Phil Powers embodies this man who is full of confidence and regret at the same time. He has hard won wisdom born of living many years in search of do-overs to mitigate the pain he is feeling now from years of making the wrong choices, saying the wrong thing, choosing the wrong path. Matsos does an exceptional job of switching back and forth between his actual wife and a woman who is injecting her perspective as a woman who understands what his wife wanted by virtue of being a woman herself.

Artun Kircali as Sir comes into the story half-way through the play, and quickly assimilates to the emotional minefield “Me” is taking us through.

Roughly half the marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. That’s a lot of marriages that go bust, and each has their own set of circumstances. Yet, Cox’s script, which he says went through three full rewrites, several staged readings, workshops and feedback sessions, showcases powerful universalities to which people in broken marriages can relate. And he does so with a very sharp knife that cuts away the fat of gilded and skewed memories and focuses on the meat of the truth of what happens to people when they try and combine lives, link hearts and build families when their souls are not aligned as they should be.

The writing here is razor sharp and the acting is more than up to doing it justice.

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