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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

Men with Clubs
HotCity Theatre

Also see Sarah's review of Jersey Boys

Men With Clubs
Christopher Lawyer, Tyler Vickers, Travis Estes and Jared Sanz-Agero
Gregory Jones's cleverly titled new play, Men with Clubs , presents an interesting take on masculinity relationships among men in modern American society. It's sort of like Sam Shepard in a much more genteel environment, where the clubs are the kind you play golf with, and the men in question met as prep school classmates 20 years ago. As befits their social class, the guys stay in touch by getting together for an annual game of golf, which also serves as an excuse to get away from their wives and engage in a little male bonding.

Men with Clubs won HotCity's GreenHouse New Play Festival last year, which gave it the right to the mainstage production now running at the ArtLoft. I didn't see the original production, so I can't say how much the play has been revised, but the current version is an effective piece of theatre which uses standard techniques of play construction to develop four distinct characters, fill us in on their backgrounds, and create and resolve conflict among them. If the characters are types, they are never absolute stereotypes, which is a tribute both to the playwright and to the actors.

Clay (Travis Estes) is the worst golfer in the pack, and he knows it. He's also defensive about his occupation, which he insists is not PUBLIC relations but MEDIA relations, as if anyone but him cares about that distinction. He touts the joys of parenthood but has more than a wandering eye, and has been carrying a grudge against one of the other men since his prep school days.

Hammer (Tyler Vickers) is a know-it-all who is constantly on the attack, having learned early on that the best defense is a good offence. He's also the best golfer of the lot, and in an early monologue tells us that he loves golf because it's the last refuge of individual honor and accomplishment: "There are no free throws. No bonus points. Nobody's going to call a foul on you but you. I wouldn't expect you to give me a break." The basketball analogy is not accidental.

Wood (Christopher Lawyer) organized the game but keeps reminding the others that they don't have to be there (they are meeting near his home in Missouri because he claims he can't leave his medical practice). He's recently become religious and annoys the others by emailing them "God spam." On the bright side, Wood has many of the funniest lines in the play, religiously tinted non-sequiturs like "tears of false prophets are the devil's bubble bath" and "adversity is the ham salad in God's sack lunch," which Lawyer delivers absolutely dead-pan.

Rich (Jared Sanz-Agero) plays the role of clown within this circle of friends: he always wants to smooth over differences with a joke. He functions as something of a wise fool among the foursome: at one point he tells a joke about a duck hunter and a farmer, which sums up the play's entire theme, without realizing the import of what he is saying.

Over the course of fewer than 18 holes, these old friends manage to bring up old grudges and new disputes, pick fights and settle them, and even challenge the notion that they are really friends at all. There's nothing particularly new in either the characters or their conflicts (except for the fact that they are enacted during a game of golf), but it's all nicely realized and makes for an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Men with Clubs is a text-heavy play: the game of golf exists primarily to provide a framework for their dialogue and extra-curricular scuffles. Carrying a show entirely through dialogue is a heavy burden for the playwright, and sometimes interest sags, particularly in the first act; it livens up considerably in the second act, when the character's conflicts are brought out into the open. Some of Jones's best writing is done in the monologues which allow the men to express feelings which they feel they must hide from the others: to speak such thoughts in the presence of their buddies would be "girly" or worse. As a group, these are guys who think nut shots are hilarious and pepper their speech with misogynist comments, so it's a relief to find out there is something more beneath the surface.

The HotCity production is not elaborate, but its very minimalism keeps the attention on the characters and their relationships. Scott De Broux's sand-swept three-level set effectively suggests a golf course (complete with sand trap, which plays a crucial role in the evening's action). Kimberly Klearman's lighting design shifts attention among the characters as the script requires. Scott Breihan's costumes nicely differentiate among the characters, and Annamaria Pileggi's direction keeps things moving along briskly.

Sound designer Sean Savoie provides an interesting blend of music between scenes, mostly rock and country (with a surprising number of songs on golf themes) but with a brief cut from Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" to open and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" as an ironic counterpoint to a less than heroic expedition in a golf cart. Special kudos to whomever was running the sound board: this production includes many sound effects that are coordinated with the players' golf swings on stage, clearly not an easy task to bring off.

The HotCity Theatre production of Men With Clubs will continue at the ArtLoft Theatre at 1529 Washington Ave. through May 10th. Ticket information is available from the box office at 314-289-4063, or from the company website at www.hotcitytheatre.org. Next up for HotCity is the Greenhouse New Play Festival, June 27-29, which will be held at the Centene Center for the Arts, 3547 Olive St.

Cast
Travis Estes*: Clay
Tyler Vickers: Hammer
Jared Sanz-Agero: Rich
Christopher Lawyer: Wood

Crew
Director: Annamaria Pileggi
Stage manager: Maureen O'Brien*
Scenic Designer: Scott De Broux
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Klearman
Sound Designer: Sean Savoie
Costume Designer: Scott Breihan
Properties Designer: Suki Peters
Assistant Technical Director: Cameron Fuller
Running Crew: Gwendolyn Anderson, Tom Nichols, Lauren Kissel * Denotes a member of Actors Equity.


-- Sarah Boslaugh



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