What's the best way to escape the acrimonious political disagreements saturating our everyday world? Easy: See a play about acrimonious political disagreements. Well, okay, maybe not. But a play condensing the arguments filling our lives into one smaller, more personal conflict might beneficially allow us to consider and reconsider our opinions in a safe, nonconfrontational environment.
That's what The Play Company's production of Leslie Ayvazian's new play Lovely Day, at the Beckett Theatre, promises to deliver. And what it doesn't achieve. For Ayvazian has committed the sole cardinal sin for any play of this nature: she's chosen a side. Intentionally or not, Lovely Day leans too far in one direction to effectively tell a story of two warring opinions, both alike in American dignity.
In this corner: Fran (Deirdre O'Connell), a one-time conservative who's recently started participating in a weekly vigil group that holds peaceful public protests of the war in the Middle East and urges peace. In that corner: Her husband, Martin (David Rasche), who joined the army to fight against Communism and still vociferously advocates the role of the United States as the world's policeman. And finally, the catalyst: Their 17-year-old son, Brian (Javier Picayo), who signs up to join the armed forces though he longs to be a musician.
It's a solid, workable idea. But warning flags start flying the instant the conflict is ignited: "Oh, this guy came to school today," Brian tells his parents, almost as an afterthought after presenting them their anniversary presents. "Government guy. Military. We all had to sign our names." His mother, taken aback, asks him what he signed. His response: "Don't know," and, better yet, "Little weird."
Presenting the military this way from the start, as a sinister entity that captures children against their will, doesn't easily encourage a free-flowing debate of ideas. And, unsurprisingly, we don't get one: Martin is depicted as simply a might-makes-right yea-sayer, who's in generic favor of weapons-based superiority: "As Americans, we have one value and it's freedom, democracy," he tells Fran early on. "We believe our system is the best because it is. And we believe that if it's threatened, we must destroy whoever's threatening it."
Lines like these (and an especially stilted speech in which he defends going to war for oil) make it impossible for Martin to come to life. Rasche tries his hardest, and he's got an impressively natural facility with Ayvazian's roundabout, heavily conversational dialogue, but he's playing a one-note character lacking even a single reason that we should take him seriously.
O'Connell is allowed much more latitude as the fidgety, flighty Fran. She gets to play not just a compulsive furniture rearranger (the layout of David Korins's modern living room set, beautifully lit by Paul Whitaker's lights, changes multiple times), but a woman fighting a life-or-death battle in a way that Rasche's Martin is never allowed to be viewed. O'Connell carefully layers Fran's feelings for Brian with increasingly confounding questions about her husband and her marriage, while trying to keep up appearances for both their sakes. It's a solid, believable performance.
Picayo's work is similarly strong - he capably portrays Brian's uncertainty about his future as debilitating enough to require a choice, even if it's one that's less than ideal. He can mask it with a disarming smirk or explode into frustrated emotion in a darkened room; he's forever caught trying to please both his parents and himself, but still isn't completely sure of who he is or where he's going. If that remains the case, his adulthood will be difficult with or without the military.
That issue is central to director Blair Brown; Brian's impact is never lessened and his presence is always strongly felt, even though he disappears from the action long before their argument concludes. Brown displays here much the same sensitivity she's brought to her acting work (including her terrific, Tony-winning turn in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen), pointing up subtleties in the characters' relationships and keeping the battleground so superbly sterilized that no ideological imbalances in the script are ever augmented visually.
That allows the subject to retain some of its emotional and psychological pull. But Brown can only do so much to temper the proceedings into one equally accepting of both Fran's and Martin's outlooks; there's not a battle that the cool-headed Fran doesn't categorically win against the violently impulsive Martin. As a result, the play ultimately seems aimed only at people who want their opinions affirmed. Thoughtful, dramatic examinations of how both sides truly think are eminently theatrical, but not to be found at Lovely Day.