The second set of short plays presented by the New George’s MANFEST seem to, if possible, rise to an even higher level than the three presented the night before. The stakes are higher, the tension tighter, and the underlying currents running faster and more furious than its predecessors.
Stu and Ray appears, upon first glance, like the ultimate in masculine cliche. Two men (one wearing the prerequisite flannel shirt that all manly men must own) knock back a couple of beers and shoot the breeze about their daily lives while relaxing in one’s suburban backyard. Despite the jovial banter and easy tone of the men’s laidback conversation, Stu and Ray quickly develops into a gritty snapshot of the consequences that befall men when they are stripped of their confidence. While Stu (John Ficarra) puffs out his chest and swaggers around the stage boasting about his latest conquest (who we find to be not the ultimate dream girl he’s intent on making her), Ray wallows in his jumble of emotions concerning losing his job, arguing with his wife, and coming to terms with the humiliation of now being what Stu calls a “house husband.” Matt Neely as Ray is like watching Edward Norton on the brink of an explosion — pale, simmering, and intense. It is this level that both men eventually reach, with Ficarra transcending the predictable comic relief role and truly immersing himself in Ray’s breakdown towards the end. Playwright Trista Baldwin must either come from a family of many brothers or have been involved in some serious undercover research work, because the dialogue she gives her men is some of the most realistic and believable I’ve heard. In short, Stu and Ray accelerates from the superficial and entertaining to the jarring and candid.
Keeping with the pace, Sheri Wilner then gives us Hell and Back, where three generations of men equally try to stifle and release the damage war has done to them. Recently returned home from combat, Frankie (a shocking Jeremy Bobb) tries to await his family’s welcome home dinner for him while remaining trapped in the horrors he has witnessed and can never escape. Accompanied by his father and grandfather, Frankie jumps between edgy silence and tortured shouting, which in turn prompt the elder gentlemen to help him in their own ways. Michael Graves as the grandfather refuses to discuss the events, convinced that lighthearted conversation and a return to normalcy are what Frankie needs. It is Frankie’s father (Thomas Ryan), however, who demands that Frankie relive whatever is bothering him, painfully recounting war stories of his own to the shock of all the men. Reminiscent of patriarchal Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill styles, Hell and Back thrusts the audience into the difficulties of male family relationships when dealing with an event that threatens to tear them apart. Brutal and ripping, Hell and Back affected me the most of all the plays.
This isn’t to say that the evening’s final offering isn’t powerful, it just falls short when put in direct contrast with the first two shows. Devil Must Be Deep by Kirsten Greenidge is muddled at times, the basic thread of the story overshadowed by the constant shifting of time. While Chuck Patterson takes the stage by its throat with his finely nuanced performance as Carl, a homeless man ruined by the memories of his childhood friend’s death, there is sadly no room left for anyone else on stage. It is only when Carl is delivering his monologues that the story is clear (oddly enough since most of his speech is in broken phrases). Avery Glymph does his best to keep up, but there is so little to his character that it seems as if he exists for no other purpose than to continually prompt Carl into speaking more. April Matthis (flashbacked in Carl’s mind as his devil-weary grandmother Bettey) is simply window dressing, a moving set piece who supplements the stage design but provides nothing more than slight background information. Devil Must Be Deep is a good attempt at what demands to be a longer and more developed piece of work.
The two evenings of MANFEST provide a range of interpretations of men and how their minds might work. I was pleased to notice that not once did the playwrights veer into the territory of men as heartless or emotion-less beings, but instead attempted to explore them as purely people faced with dilemmas. And hey, doesn’t this leave the door open for the men to write their insights about women? I think I sense a WOMANFEST in the works…
New Georges Theatre Company