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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Best Man "Bangs" The Bride
in New Comedy at NJ Rep

Also see Bob's review of Richard III

The Best Man
Ed Jewett and Susan Greenhill
The Best Man, the world premiere comedy by Robert King at the New Jersey Repertory, is set in its entirety in the sacristy of Saint Andrew's Church in Hackensack, New Jersey. And the welcoming set by Harry Feiner is a beauty, lovingly detailed with stained glass windows, built-in benches and cabinets, wood paneling topped by stucco, with pictures of the last five popes, a framed papal commendation, a Catholic wall calendar, paintings of Jesus and other iconic figures, religious statues, and crucifixes on the walls. Also placed about are missals, vestments, candles and chalices. One anticipates that the parish priest will be present here bringing warmth and gentle humor with him. Wrong. Although the second act does have its moments, unaccountably playwright King has provided us with a crass and unfunny, ecclesiastically unadorned comedy.

It is the wedding day of Patrick and Doreen. Thirty-five-year-old Patrick is a good-hearted, overweight, nerdy guy, who in his halcyon days struck out with the dames. When his father deserted the family to chase a young skirt, Patrick quit high school to take over his dad's auto repair shop and support the family. He has been living with and taking care of his mother ever since. Patrick has a younger brother John, a ne'er do well and sharpie with the opposite sex. Patrick paid John's college tuition until John dropped out; ever since then, he has been bumming about the country. Patrick recently paid off John's gambling debts and brought him back home for the wedding.

As The Best Man begins, Patrick and Doreen are momentarily due to march down the aisle. John nervously paces about. Patrick's friend Ronnie enters. John tells him that last night, after all got bombed at the rehearsal, John "banged" Doreen in a hotel stairwell ("we connected"). John now says that he is in love and wants to marry Doreen. Patrick enters. He is totally stressed out. He has spent all of his savings so that Doreen can have a large, fancy wedding with the ceremony "at the church where she grew up," and this morning, when he saw Doreen, she was spaced out and dismissive of him. John ceaselessly rides Patrick, implying his dalliance with Doreen. Patrick reveals that he and Doreen have never had intercourse, and that he "knows" that she is a virgin.

The bulk of the intended humor consists of John's ceaseless verbal abuse of Patrick for being a nerd and being overweight. The nadir is reached when, in defense of himself, Patrick tells John that "this past month, I lost 25 pounds," and John responds, "What did you do, take a shit?" This is neither written nor played to reveal or amplify the fact that John is a miserable excuse for a human being. Folks, this and John's other abusive remarks are the jokes which are intended to amuse us. The next and final person to enter the sacristy is Patrick and John's self-centered, pain in the you know where, mother Rita. She's a laugh riot. She makes it clear that she despises Doreen, feeds Patrick the candy bar which he has been trying to resist eating, and ripostes a nasty remark of John's by telling him, "one night when you were a baby, I could swear that I saw three sixes carved into your skull."

Things take a turn for the better in act two when John is kept off the stage for a while and Patrick shows some courage and gumption in standing up for himself to his mother and his brother in the face of what has transpired between John and Doreen. There is also some decent humor gently satirizing the foibles of the working class in moments when Patrick reminisces and hopes with his old pal, Ronnie. Dreaming of each being being married and hanging out together in the backyard on Sundays, Ronnie says of their wives, "They'll bring us out beers and tell us to use coasters."

Ed Jewett makes a fine Patrick, believable, sympathetic and not unamusing. Although at age 35, Patrick has acquired abilities that he did not have as a teenager, Jewett enables us to recognize the nerdy helplessness that was his younger self. Tom Tansey's Ronnie is brasher, less matured, and a fine partner in the scenes with Patrick where they reach out to bolster one another. Jewett and Tansey both affect Irish-American urban working class accents which add a rich ethnicity to their performances. Dan Domingues does not bring this nuanced layer to the role of John, but he is burdened with a thankless role.

Susan Greenhill as Rita is a gifted comedienne and draws the largest laughs from the audience. However, Greenhill's inflections and style suggest the Jewish stage mother. Because of this, some theatergoers familiar with the comic Jewish mother stereotypes of the American stage may conclude that author Robert King has gotten his ethnic groups crossed. However, it is certain that Irish and Jewish mothers are both capable of the type of behaviors shown here. Therefore, the problem lies in the casting and interpretation of the role. Although it is only fair to reiterate that Greenhill displays excellent comedic skills.

Director Peter Bennett has kept the pace fast and his direction of the physical comedy and blocking within the narrow playing space is exemplary. The costumes by Patricia E. Doherty and the lighting design of Jill Nagle complete the very helpful design work.

Overreaching, I was thinking that rather than rely on the course and mean utterings of John to provide the bulk of the humor in The Best Man, playwright King could have better blessed us with a good hearted, wise but unworldly priest to lend humor and substance to the proceedings. These thoughts have made me nostalgic for Barry Fitzgerald.

The Best Man continues performances through October 15, 2006 (Thurs. & Fri. 8 p.m./ Sat. 4p.m. & 8p.m./ Sun. 2p.m.) at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre (Lumia Theatre), 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740, Box Office: 732-229-3166/ online: www.njrep.org.

The Best Man by Robert King; directed by Peter Bennett

Cast
John…………Dan Domingues
Ronnie…………....Tom Tansey
Patrick………………Ed Jewett
Rita………..Susan Greenhill


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


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- Bob Rendell



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