One play as ragged as shark's teeth and one elegant and spare, open in Minneapolis
In Charles Mee's Wintertime at the Guthrie Lab, the surreal collides with sex farce and the profound smashes up against slapstick in a performance that leaves you feeling as though you've spent the evening in a tumble dryer. But surrender to Mee's mercurial read on life, let it knock and thump and engage you, and it's rather fun - in a bruised sort of way.
Right up front, director John Miller-Stephany lets you know Wintertime is not about psychological realism. In the opening scene, Jonathan and Ariel, two young lovers who have come to his family's remote cabin to spend the New Year weekend together and to get engaged, walk right through the huge arched picture window of Mathew Le Febvre's stunning, snow-scene set. Boundaries barely exist in this play; birch trees grow in the wings of the living room and, just as there are no boundaries between the indoors and outdoors, boundaries between characters creep and slide, genders slither, couples uncouple and re-couple.
In the opening scene, Jonathan and Ariel are dancing a spoofily over-the-top dance of joy to a blaring rendition of "When I Fall in Love," when they are interrupted by Jonathan's mother Maria, who is already in residence, with her French boyfriend Francois. The young couple is coping with that surprise when Jonathan's father, who is still married to his mother, turns up with his - boyfriend. Within minutes, jealousies flair. Accusations, recriminations and protestations of love are followed by the catharsis of head banging, door slamming and plate hurling to high-decibel classical music. People drop in and out of holes in the ice. Oddball characters drop in and out of the action. The play spins on the unpredictability of love and life and takes it to weird extremes.
Miller-Stephany speeds and slows Wintertime as though it has different cycles. Mostly, he runs it on full tumble, but when characters wax philosophical, he stills the play to a point that I began to feel a need to locate the "start" button.
The ten member ensemble embrace Mee's play with all they've got and, at the end, let it all hang out. Literally. They bare their bums in a raucous dance, led by natty mover Brienin Bryant as Ariel, and sing a jolly number in the style of an American musical.
Josette DiCarlo and Christopher Innvar excel as Maria, Jonathan's mother, and Francois, her lover; by sheer force of personality, they hold the center of the play. She is a French-accented floosie, who expects to bed and love both her boyfriend and her husband. He is a Frenchman, an irresistible rotter and womanizer, open to all opportunities. Innvar tackles the challenge of Francois' scarlet negligéed attempt to seduce Edmund (Robert Berdhal) with panache.
In less character-driven roles, Jeff Cribbs taps youthful Jonathan's prudish response to his parents and the flaming jealousy that mounts to a violent chair smashing routine. Mee gives romantic Ariel good material to work with at the play's opening, but seems to lose interest in the character as the play progresses, so that Bryant cannot fulfill early expectations. Sam Freed's stodgy Frank comes over as too bland.
In delightful vignette parts, Twin Cities actor Claudia Wilkens tickles as Hilda, the German half of an elderly lesbian duo. Steve Swere bumbles amusingly as philosophizing bumpkin, Bob, and Charity Jones storms the stage as a spike-heeled, sex-charged doctor.
A highlight of the play is the door-slamming expression of group rage, choreographed by Felix Ivanov. It comes as a culmination of two identical accusations given by two different characters to their feckless lovers. Each accuses his love interest of responding only when the relationship seems threatened, so that love is driven by anxiety, not love. Edmund wheels in a fire-engine red door and slams it to a revved up "1812 Overture." Other characters join his rage and play the door like an instrument, slamming it in unison with Tchaikovsky's canon fire. In contrast, the crockery smashing feels flat.
Wintertime does wallop you around, and you might reel out of the Lab thinking you've spent the evening on air fluff. But Mee's sometimes lyrical, often hilarious and always unexpected script zings lines at you like, "Poverty is a form of a lack of social love" and "Eros is the desire for something you're missing." Uncomfortable truths clunk around in there with you.
Wintertime runs through March 2. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7 p.m. Call for matinees. $26 -$30.Guthrie Lab, 700, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call: 612-377-2224. Online, visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Lobby Hero launches the Jungle's new season with style
Director Bryan Bevell gives Kenneth Lonergan's elegantly crafted Lobby Hero at the Jungle Theater an interpretation so natural and film-like you feel you could be watching a movie. The play's four characters feel as immediate as the person sitting next to you, and the moral dilemma at the heart of the play pits conscience against loyalty so compellingly that it pulls you right into their thinking.
Straight arrow security guard William checks up frequently on his underling, young Jeff, the night shift guard for the apartment building. Jeff, thin and hollow-chested, has failure stamped all over him. He's been kicked out of the navy for smoking pot, but he's a well-meaning youth, and William tries to build spine into him. William has problems of his own - his troubled brother is implicated in a brutal murder and has set up William as an alibi. Bill, a thuggy policeman, frequents the building for mid-shift sex in apartment 22 J and strands his rookie partner Dawn in the lobby with Jeff. Idealistic Dawn fancies Bill - until she learns what he's up to in apartment 22 J. Jeff is attracted to Dawn. When William confides his dilemma of whether to lie for his brother to Jeff, Lobby Hero begins to twist toward its tense dénouement.
Set designer Bain Boehlke sets the scene for this lower middle class foursome, who are trying to forge a life for themselves in a hard world. He creates a paneled apartment-block lobby, where the cushions don't match the couch, the window blinds are pulled up crooked, and jerry-rigged wires loop between wall-mounted loud speakers. Beyond the entrance, the set cuts away to a junk-piled street.
Lonergan's characters spring straight from the streets of New York, and Bevell's casting is right on. James Young II plays William, a black American who has pulled himself out of poverty. The character is tough, fair and honest, and in Young's hands, I felt the pain of his struggle. Jeff is a demanding role for young Nathan Christopher. He's on stage throughout the play, and he brings to the role a sense of inhabiting Jeff. Sometimes his lines butted into others' lines, and I wondered if that was error or part of Bevell's naturalistic directing style.
Gus Lynch as the corrupt bull cop Bill made my flesh creep. Physically, he matches the part: neck as thick as the head, belly as big as menace. But Lonergan invests Bill with sufficient humanity when he reaches out to help William that it saves him from being a paper cutout. As the young rookie cop, navigating her way through the exploitative male institution of policing, Angie Haigh's Dawn is fresh, hard and feisty, all at once.
Bevell brings touches to his direction that make Lobby Hero breathe with life. When the lobby door opens to the street, it lets in the night sounds of New York in Reid Rejsa's sound design. When Dawn realizes that the talkative Jeff is revealing information she can use against Bill, her body language shifts; she becomes more masculine. On goes her cop hat; she's on the job. After his assignation upstairs, Bill hitches his pants in satisfaction and, in Bill's hands, a bunch of flowers look as intimidating as a night-stick.
The elements of fine theater coalesce in this production. Bevell's sensitive directing combines with strong acting and staging, and Lonergan's first rate script. Lonergan wrote the screenplay for the award winning movie You Can Count on Me, and the Jungle's Lobby Hero draws you into a real world as thoroughly as any good movie.
Lobby Hero runs through March 29. Wednesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. $19 - $29. Jungle Theater, 2951, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call: 612-822-7063.