CONNECTICUT & BEYOND
Ostensibly, Matt (James Ludwig), about to turn 40, is at an impasse. His marriage to Arianne (Keira Naughton) is less than thrilling. She asks, "Are we okay?" She is being pursued by one of her students, skateboard-toting Julian (Nick Dillenburg). Arianne worries about her appeal, her weightand life, in general, as a wife and mother of two. The play opens in slow-motion: Matt has been running through the snow. He will soon hit the trails with Melora (Franklin), a co-worker who runs marathons. They will often sit, during the production, at the makeshift eating area the company provides. A tacky table, benches and a water cooler suffice and that is it. The scene shifts, during the first act, to Matt and Arianne's bedroom. Stagehands and the actors slide and carry furniture around and about.
If Matt and Arianne's marriage is on hold, Melora's with the unseen Ron is downright tepid and deadening to her. He is not fertile, having had cancer, and she says, "Marriage without children is like junior college." Every so often, playwright Newbound spices his play, filled with conversation and relatively little action, with a razor-sharp line.
Melora is obviously taken with Matt while he is reluctant to acknowledge her allure. Still, he goes out for drinks with her and manages to miss the surprise birthday party Arianne tosses for him. The second act opens with Matt and Melora, chopsticks in hand, sharing takeout Chinese. Later, they will practically dance together, albeit on separate rolling desk chairs.
Kenneth Grady Barker, designing, has created a snowy effect through the intriguing rectangles he has placed near the back of the stagehigh enough not to be intrusive. Wes Grantom, directing a very fine cast, does everyone a huge favor with his careful and thoughtful touches. His direction is important but not overbearing.
While Matt approaches 40, Melora soon reaches 30 years of age. Although Matt is a focal point, it is Tara Franklin who claims this play as hers with a knowing, alert, tuned-in performance. She lights up the stage virtually all the time. She has fallen for Matt, she wants to pry and intrude but not ruin the man's marriage. On the other hand, her love life is non-existent and she is: lovely, physical, and wanting. To call it a quandary is to understate. The actress's ease with the role is most impressive. Franklin is expressive when she is: speaking, drinking, eating, or even watching Matt. Ludwig, as Matt, is appropriately contemplative. He is uncertain and the actor wears that feeling. How to acknowledge the obvious chemistry he's feeling, and what if he does?
Newbound is not exclusively a playwright. He has helped manage an arts and culture magazine, taught, mentored writers, been a journalist, and continues to work on fiction. For the past dozen years or so, he has very much been a person of the Berkshires. The current play, fittingly, is part of the "Made in the Berkshires Festival" at BTF.
Birthday Boy is about real or imagined moments as one takes a look, considers, and (with any luck) moves on with existence. Matt does not exactly feel that life begins at 40 but Melora, a decade younger, tells him that she doesn't think 40 is very old at all.
Newbound proves, with this play, that it's not necessarily static to visit real people and recognizable circumstances. He does so with just a bit of an edge and enough humor to keep it, at times, light. The result is inviting, sustaining theater.
Birthday Boy, the Unicorn Theatre, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (part of the Berkshire Theatre Festival) concludes a five day run September 3rd. The play will reopen on September 29th and continue through October 16th. For tickets, call (413) 298-5576 or visit www.berkshiretheatre.org.
- Fred Sokol