Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
21 Extremely Bad Breakups
Every member of the cast is terrific, but one should offer a special shout-out to Allison Witham, whose expert timing and skill at physical comedy shines like a bright star here. Witham can take a simple gesture, like spinning on one's heels after an encounter and heading out, and somehow make it both off-the-charts hilarious and poignant. That mixture of sadness, absurdity, gentle irony, and wackiness makes it impossible to take your eyes off her.
This is a fun play and I enjoyed it. Was I blown away by it? Two years ago I might have pestered all my friends to see it. I'd have said, look, it's a hoot and a holler and you'll love it. I did not react that way now. Why not? It is not the play; the play is very well written and it's good. It is just that it feels like it belongs to a world that is gone. I am not against escapism, God knows. It is just that it gets harder and harder to forget where we are and what is happening outside. It's been 15 months now and the worldour worldhas changed and what does and does not seem funny or absurd or deeply ironic has changed with it. We are no longer someplace where "extremely bad" could simply describe a break-up between gainfully employed, well-fed people with health insurance whose rights are not threatened. This play belongs to a world that was safe for longing for something beyond what is necessary and sufficient for living a reasonably contented life.
Perhaps because of the current background, the stories in the play sometimes felt naive to me, the characters' dilemmas very First World, and their approach to relationships too capitalist-influenced. It is not just the hyper-individualismthe appraisal of present and potential partners for their "use value" (will this person make me happy?, might I be happier with someone else?)but also the tendency to measure and appraise personal happiness as if it were something calculable. There are moments when this dating game seems more like a rating game than a desire for true love.
The play takes place on a bare stage with wrinkly paper wings on each side. The fairly brilliant scenic design reflects the theme of childishness. The actors bounce on primary-color exercise balls, wave swimming pool tubs, and spray out a bunch of bright red and yellow balls. They have yet to grow up, or maybe that's just how people behave in today's dating scene.
It's probable that Leidner and Rummenie are pointing to the narcissism to be critical of it. While the characters represent a range of types (e.g., David Beukema has a fabulous turn as a nerdy, hyper-skilled surgeon; he's a riot), they all seem remarkably alike in the limited way they think about life and relationships. All of them want to be with someone who is their "equal" or "better," if human beings can be described that way. And who doesn't want to find "a good match," as they used to say. It's arguable that love sometimes is or can "be a battlefield." Still, one misses among these characters any sense of the kind of respect and sympathy and forgiveness necessary to building a life together. And perhaps that's Leidner's point. That more than ever, we need to be reminded that we are not one another's commodities, but fellow sufferers and strivers in the search for love, meaning, and adequate health care coverage.
Walking Shadow Theatre Company's 21 Extremely Bad Breakups, through March 3, 2018, at Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, visit walkingshadowcompany.org.
Directed by Amy Rummenie