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The Bigger Man

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The best plays have both plots and personalities, but one or the other will do in a pinch. Sam Marks's The Bigger Man, currently at Center Stage, contains threads of story so inordinately thin that they're almost undetectable by the naked eye. Yet somehow, what should by all rights be a throwaway evening is instead highly watchable and even enjoyable.

It never quite reaches worthwhile, though - for that Marks simply would have to write more. Not increase the length, mind you - at scarcely an hour and a half, the play feels overlong now - but provide depth and weight to the story he's concocted so that the hints he drops at bigger issues could be more fully explored. Marks touches on growing up, letting go, settling for the safe choice when the more enticing one is too dangerous, but as written, these ideas coalesce into no greater social messages, no trenchant insights into the human psyche or romantic relationships.

Unoriginal ideas can still be successfully repackaged, though - the sitcom Friends, for example, was made special by the unusual alchemy of its cast members, the interactions, subtle and exaggerated, that changed everyday dialogue and hoary laugh lines into something more than existed solely in the writing. That's exactly what happens in The Bigger Man: Commonplace complaints sound new, familiar emotions feel fresh, and creaky jokes bring down the house.

The play focuses on five people tripping over each other in a shabby motel - one character describes it as looking like "where horror movies go down" - the night before a wedding. Planning the trip to the altar is Lily, who's invited her smoldering old flame Len, his friend Rick, and Rick's girlfriend Stacy to witness the nuptials. Complications ensue (as they always must) when Len falls afoul of Lily's brother Jerry, interrupts what he believes is a secret cult ceremony, and consciously and unconsciously attempts to ruin the wedding despite bearing Lily little surface ill will.

The story meanders and lurches, moves in circles, and dithers continuously before arriving at its pre-ordained destination. Louis Moreno's direction is adequate but undistinguished; Lex Liang's run-down hotel set is striking for both its low-budget tackiness and its transformative capabilities; Liang's costumes, Jason Jeunnette's lights, and Zach Williamson's sound design are at best workmanlike. There's not a thing you haven't seen or heard before. Yet every time an actor opens his or her mouth, the play comes unexpectedly alive.

Mark Alhadeff brings a fiery, borderline frightening intensity to reformed delinquent and reforming druggie Len, and the series of increasingly desperate actions he performs for or about Lily never seem out of line for the character. Molly Pearson makes you intimately aware of what he sees in her: She's spunky and intelligent, adventurous and just a little bit dangerous, the kind of person who pushes others just to the edge, but no further. They share few scenes together, but their chemistry is palpable.

Rick and Stacy - as volatile as Len and Lily, arguing as often as they breathe - are no less convincing: Sharon Freedman conceives Stacy as a less-expert button pusher who's not above resorting to loud, angry tactics to get what she wants from her too-independent partner. Greg Keller, who has a Matthew Perry-like charm and a razor-sharp comic line delivery - how many people could make the line "Did you steal something? 'Cause you seem mad chipper?" almost unbearably funny? - is a stupid but sweet Rick who you can't help rooting for. Their big fight scene - which does all but peel paint off the walls - is an irreplaceable comic centerpiece.

Barnaby Carpenter has it much harder as the overly intellectual Jerry, and gives the least compelling performance; his role is at best functional, a way for Marks to move everyone around where and when he needs them, and Carpenter's work is commensurate with that. He doesn't lack conviction, though, and everything he does seems committed and emotionally justified. But none of it's interesting, though that's understandable: Jerry's speeches - coyly confronting Len about his drug use, trying to explain the bizarre "healing" ceremony Len bursts in on - aren't actable in the conventional sense.

Nothing in the show really is, of course; that's why its relative success is so shocking. It's a play that shouldn't work at all, that shouldn't connect emotionally or comedically, yet somehow does. On first glance, Lily says it best: "There are more important stories than this one." But upon reflection, the play's title page description seems, ironically, even more apropos: "Every successful relationship starts with a solid Foundation." Yes, but The Bigger Man reminds us that impossibly weak foundations can, against the odds, sometimes produce successful shows.

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The Bigger Man
Through July 23
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Center Stage, 48 West 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TheaterMania