Though practically none of it is seen onstage, there's an important seventh character in Frank Stancati's Just Us Boys, the comedy-drama set against the backdrop of a Broadway musical, now playing at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. That character is the musical itself.
Frighteningly titled Depression and set during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, all we see are some representative costumes and a fraction of one dance number (courtesy of Joanne Borts) and we hear part of only one song ("Things Have Gotta Get Better," composed by Bob Ost). Yet the image of this show - and, presumably, any Broadway musical - is one of dream factory, parent, and matchmaker all rolled into one. The show's effects on the lives of the men who share one chorus dressing room in its theater are where Stancati derives his entire story.
The characters driving this story include the show's sole straight chorus boy, Sam (Alexander Koltchak); Peter, the oldest and most experienced one in the room, and the only with a stable relationship (Brad Thomason); Joey, the immensely talented and promiscuous upstart (Jarrod Cafaro); the show's dance captain and relationship cynic Anthony (James Blanshard); the sexual enigma of the group and struggling swing Mike (Emanuele Ancorini); and even the unseen but mercilessly omnipresent stage manager, Ray (Mac Hardcastle).
Just Us Boys, following the show from the day it first moves into the theater to a couple of days after that season's Tony ceremony, covers a lot of ground in terms of relationships. Sam becomes interested in the show's older leading lady, Peter and Joey fray each other's nerves and step on each other's toes in more ways than one, and Anthony finds himself torn between love and work when he becomes drawn into a relationship with Mike, whose skills at filling in any of eight roles on a moment's notice are less than exemplary.
There's little fault to be found with Catherine Lamm's direction, as she keeps the play moving quickly through 18 scenes, knowing when to keep the tension high and when to allow the audience to let off steam with slower moments. But Stancati's writing of the relationship scenes is often predictable to a fault, his plot twists not unnecessary or even unwelcome, just obvious. In describing the show itself through his characters, he fares much better; all the carping about the show's changes, finale, book, score, and choreography (including a tap dance on a bread line), Stancati has developed Depression so fully and richly, it almost seems as if it could truly exist.
The six performers all fit well into their roles, though Blanshard, Koltchak, and Ancorini seem to give the most balanced performances overall. Cafaro and Thompson play off of each other very well, their characters instinctively recognizing they are each other across a 10-15 year gap, but tend to overplay their moments when apart. Hardcastle's vocal performance is ingratiatingly grating, and his pre-show banter with the audience as he sweeps the stage for the show provides Just Us Boys with some of its funniest moments.
But in a way, even that makes sense. Though he deals with five separate love plots for the onstage characters in Just Us Boys, the one Stancati is primarily concerned with is the love they - and we - have for the theatre. Just Us Boys is at its best and most compelling when it realizes that even the elements of backstage life most annoying or trying for the insiders are difficult to resist completely.
Fourth Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival