Imagine, if you will, two young actors finding their first experience with a lengthy run being a production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot they expected only to last the summer, but threatens to stretch into the winter. A great setup for a fizzy 75-minute comedy, right?
Anthony P. Pennino's exploration of this very subject - Toby, which is now playing at the Sanford Meisner Theater - clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. During that time, there are only a handful of legitimate laughs and a point that's not satisfactorily addressed until the last scene. Audiences may be able to find themselves relating all too well with Toby McDonnell and Toby Donally (Christopher Conant and Jon Okabayashi), the Vladimir and Estragon in the horrific Waiting for Godot that simply will not close. Pennino's Toby often feels almost as endless.
That's not to say Toby never shows any promise. As Pennino sets up his central situation, it seems to have real potential: a mysterious benefactor keeps extending the run, though only a few people bother to show up every night; the Tobys' continually battle with their sadistic co-stars in the show; and the men's continuing problems with the limited selection of women available in their upstate Vermont locale become a continual source of frustration. But Pennino has a tendency to not build upon events as much as stretch them out, which gives a lot of the scenes a feeling of petrifying sameness.
This proves fatal for the play when it reaches its final scene and Pennino begins to tie up the apparently disparate threads of story he's been presenting. But the conclusion the two Tobys reach about what's happening to them occurs almost entirely during that scene; they aren't constructing that emotional explanation for their situation in the previous scenes. The play's resolution, such as it is, feels forced.
Even so, this last scene is the strongest dramaturgically, and it's by far the most dramatically engaging. It comes across as a bit dishonest, though, as if Pennino decided too late what kind of play he really wanted to write. Toby ends almost as a more theatrically oriented version of Sam Shepard's True West, while most of the rest of the play lumbers along as if trying to recreate for the audience the situation the two Tobys are experiencing: in the real world, they're doing the same thing every night, and in the theatrical world, their characters are waiting for someone who will never arrive.
The play isn't poorly directed; Blake Baldwin maintains the energy level and prevents it from being even more ponderous. And while Conant and Okabayashi aren't able to make every line sound convincing, they do a credible job with what they have to work with. Claudine Vermot's "log cabin" of a hotel room set is well designed, and Peter Carlson-Bancroft and Eric Garrido do a fine job of lighting it.
But in the end, it all amounts to very little; Pennino's darkly satiric look at the actor's life is just a little too unyielding (and perhaps successful) for its own good. A story about an actor's worst nightmare coming true can be a lot of fun for audiences - remember Noises Off? - but not if they're dragged into it themselves. All too frequently with Toby, that's exactly what happens.
Watchdog Theatre Company