SQUARE GO

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Written by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair
Directed by Finn den Hertog

Concise, energetic and comically peppered with the syncopations of Scottish teen speak, Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s clever two-hander offers a fresh take on the well-travelled territory of adolescent tribulations.

The action takes place a boy’s room at Hammerston High, a ferociously average school somewhere in generic suburbia. Here, teenager Mark Adrian Kyle Sebastian Brocklehurst (Daniel Portman), who understandably prefers to be called Max, imagines a cheering crowd of adoring fans as he delivers a victory speech in the style of his hero, pro wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage. The daydream is, of course, a coping mechanism. In real life, Max’s prospects are not so bright. He has been challenged to a “square go”, a mano a mano fight wherein two boys – no weapons, bare hands – duke it out to see who is the better man. Max is, understandably, petrified. His opponent is none other than Danny Guthrie (offstage), known throughout the school as “A beast. A legend. A man mountain”, who can make mincemeat out of any opponent. Max’s strawberry lace-munching best friend and ring man Stevie Nimmo (Gavin Jon Wright), tries to psych him up for the fight, but never misses an opportunity to send a bit of insult comedy (or “pish” to use the colloquial term). While the clock ticks ever closer to game time, Max and Stevie break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, and sometimes encouraging us to participate in the show. Over the course of a whirring 65 minutes, the boys overflow with pubescent zeal as they morph into stuffy physics teacher Dr. Hobbins, school bully Big Jordan, and other key figures, real and imaginary, in their small town lives. As they reconstruct the faux pas that got Max in trouble in the first place, darker shades of the story emerge. It turns out Danny Guthrie is punching back at a world that discriminated against someone he loved, that Max’s need for fantasy is fueled by the dysfunction in his household. All the while, the big confrontation beckons, but an unexpected twist beckons Max and Stevie to take their first steps into a bigger, more daunting proving ground.

Director Finn den Hertog uses the intimate three-quarter round stage to great effect, balancing Wright’s frenetic footwork with Portman’s restless strategizing as in an evenly-matched prizefight. Peter Small’s lighting design is timed to neatly coincide with the script’s one-liners and turns of mood, while Martha Mamo’s props capture both the mundane and fanciful trappings of adolescence. None of it work, of course, without the remarkable rapport between the two actors. Portman and Wright embody the very essence of the disappointments, frictions, laughter and closeness of two outcasts whose mutual misfitness forms the basis of intense- and possibly enduring – friendship.

SQUARE GO continues through June 30, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets https://www.59e59.org/ticket-information/

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LIFE X 3

Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jerry Heymann 

A kind of Groundhog Day for the smart set, Yasmina Reza’s jaundiced take on marital relations shows a foursome of educated Parisians reliving the same failed soiree over and over. There are subtle variations in each of the replays, presumably meant to help us see the same events from a different angle. The trope has potential, but the playwright seems to lack a strong sense of purpose. It’s never quite clear what the audience is meant to learn from watching the same petty people keep repeating the same mistakes, or, more importantly, why we’re supposed to care.

In the living room of a prim, middle class apartment, astrophysicist Henry (James Patrick Nelson) and Sonia (Claire Curtis-Ward) bicker over how best to get their young son to go to sleep. Henry seems to think it’s okay to give the boy a few chocolate fingers if it will get him to quiet down. Sonia believes in being firm with kids, and finds Henry’s wishy-washy parenting style annoying. Even more repulsive, in her eyes, is the way her husband sucks up to Hubert Finidori (Dominic Comperatore) a successful fellow scientist whose influence could make or break Henry’s chances for a promotion. As a matter of fact, Hubert and his wife Ines (Leah Curney) are on their way over for dinner. Apparently, neither Sonia nor Henry bothered to mark the date. Or perhaps it’s the Finidoris whose calendar is off. Either way, the surprise is not a welcome one. Sonia is still in her housecoat, there’s nothing in the fridge but Sancerre, and no hors d’oeuvres other than whatever chocolate fingers the child hasn’t already consumed and few bags of a Cheese Doodle-ish snack food called Wotsits. It’s a hostess’s nightmare, made worse by Henry’s groveling and Hubert’s thinly veiled disdain for his struggling colleague. The turning point comes when Hubert coolly delivers the news that Henry’s research paper, the result of years of work, may be irrelevant as another physicist has just published a similar treatise. It’s devastating blow for Henry, and for Sonia it’s further evidence that her husband is an epic schlimazel. In scene two, our Rashomonsters are at it again, with Hubert and Ines are already bickering before they even arrive at the doomed dinner party. As the wine flows, Hubert and Sonia, both so disappointed in their spouses, appear to be kindling an affair. In the third go-round, a more mature, confident Henry takes the publication of a rival research paper in stride. Yet despair still hangs over the scene, perhaps because the universe, reduced to numbers and theories, seems meaningless. (or maybe they’ve all just had too many chocolate fingers).

There are many unanswered questions in this drama, and not in a good, make-you-think, kind of way. Sonia and Henry live in Paris, for heaven’s sake, the very citadel of culinary achievement, yet we’re supposed to believe they can’t figure out how to get food delivered. And why can’t any of these smart people manage enter a social event correctly in their datebooks? It all feels a little too engineered. Likewise, the career and matrimonial frustrations these First Worlders face don’t seem profound enough to warrant all the histrionics. To be fair, many modern dramatists, Chekhov and Beckett among them, are known for having based great works on the dynamics of emotional paralysis. But they understood stuck-ness in a way that Reza doesn’t seem to, or at least they found a way to poeticize the melancholy of thwarted dreams.

That said, the material does offer its superb cast something to work with. In Nelson’s hands the bungling Henry seems more vulnerable than weak, someone we’re willing to root for even at his low moments. Comperatore neatly encapsulates the suave exterior and inner ennui of the disillusioned Hubert. Curtis-Ward manages to find genuine pathos between the beats of Sonia’s I-deserve-better irritability, while Curney is a joy to watch the neglected spouse who grows drunker – and more uncomfortably truthful – as the evening wears on. Director Jerry Heymann nimbly orchestrates their talents,while the painterly set design, costumes and props add an extra layer of luster to the production and highlight distinct moods of each re-exploration of a life measured out it in Whotsits and wine bottles.

LIFE X 3 continues through December 8, 2018 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street (bet 7th and 8th Avenues) For tickets, call Ovationtix, 1.866.811.4111.