We should be barely noticeable in the audience, but often we sit right up front, making our little notes. Back in the 1980s, one local critic used to just sit up there at the edge of the limelight, staring at the floor, resulting in reviews made notable by odd little references to character shoes. More recently, another has been known to scribble away with one of those big pens that lights up in red or blue, so his scribbling doesn't go all over the page. But, in the forward rows, the glow-pen is painfully visible to every actor on stage.
And then there was the other night.
Boom Town debuted in 1998, written by the actor Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber To, "The Newsroom") and is ostensibly a suspense yarn about a love triangle gone wrong. But at the first Saturday night of this production, one critic was yawning loudly, over and over, in the second half hour. Another was laughing inappropriately during what were supposed to be suspenseful moments in act two. And neither of those critics was me. (My own bad habits, obviously, are going way off-topic in my reviews, and committing the sin of idolatry.) I'm not saying their personal reactions to the play were out of line, but the public manifestations of those reactions were.
Perhaps the yawning and derisively chuckling reviewers were on to something. The popular consensus of those around me, when intermission began, seemed to be that the script is not a great one. I suppose Mr. Daniels will always be remembered best for his role in The Purple Rose of Cairo, unless he keeps writing and improving, as we all hope to do.
But shouldn't critics all be as well-behaved as altar boys, when they're out there in the dark?
Especially when a young actor like Carl Overly Jr. is on stage, as the owner of a small business facing foreclosure. As Stu Tompkins, he lights up the stage with his presence and self-assurance. And, in spite of his comical roles in the recent past, he shows great dramatic power here. There are a few sections in the play that lack physical variety, under the direction of Peter Banholzer, but neither of them directly involves Mr. Overly.
As Stu, he's funny till he's dangerous, and even then he shows as much panache as he brings to his lighter roles. In the early going, he and Beth Davis (as Stu's wife Angie) sound delightfully like an old radio comedy show, as if they're playfully going through some routine about a married couple from the 1940s. For the first ten minutes, anyway.
Ms. Davis is good, but seems limited in her emotional range when things get rough. And, to top it off, director Banholzer leaves her sprawled on the floor in a very tense situation, further reducing her impact on stage. She does a great job with her steamy romantic moments, but in other emotional situations she seems a bit guardedwithout ever having made a clear "character choice" to that effect.
Matt Hanify as a bank loan officer is charmingly embarrassed at first, then admirably defensive and threatened later on, and generally good throughoutwithin the somewhat limited range of what we imagine real bank loan officers to think and feel and do in their own day-to-day lives.
The playwright throws in a few twists at the end, but it's not enough to stop a long nose-dive into emotional drought. Judging from the chatter at intermission, much of the audience had emotionally checked-out after act one. But, strangely, I became very excited as the lights came down again for act two, wondering at the thought: "how will Mr. Overly save this show in the end?"
Of course, he grabs hold of the remaining 40 or 45 minutes with a combination of stage violence and bluster and also a surprisingly nice proclamation of love for Angie, written by Mr. Daniels. It's a splendid performance and, because of the somewhat predictable shape of the story, he dominates easily.
All the rest might be improved somewhat with more stylized and intense performances by Ms. Davis and Mr. Hanify. But (as one non-critic seated next to me suggested) it just doesn't seem like a great idea for a full-length play in the first place.
And maybe there's also a good reason the local critics are in open rebellion at this point: it's been a very busy season, and you just start to lose patience if a show hasn't fully gelled in the usual rehearsal period. Still, if every critic actually understood how much work goes into every play, and how painful it can be when the results fall short of expectations, we might all show a little more respect during each performance.
Through November 23, 2014, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, a block north of Delmar. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.
Cast of Characters: