BTF’s BIRTHDAY BOY DESERVES A CAKE … TO BE THROWN IN ITS FACE, a la MOE HOWARD, or, ‘TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, THE PARTY NEVER BEGAN’
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI Arts
PLAY REVIEW: “Birthday Boy,” a world premiere produced by the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Stage, Aug. 30-Oct. 16.
(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass., THURSDAY, SEPT. 1, 2011) — In addition to the complimentary coffee offered by the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s congenial staff prior to the opening of BIRTHDAY BOY last night at the Unicorn Theater here, they should consider adding to the menu during the remainder of this play’s run.
THE PLANET suggests the addition of Jolt Cola, No-Doz stay-awake pills, vials of amphetamines, defibulators for every patron, and plenty of stout toothpicks to keep the glazzies open. We don’t want to say BIRTHDAY BOY is a snoozer, but at Intermission, the woman sitting to THE PLANET’s right didn’t ask how we liked it so far. She asked, “Do you know how the Red Sox are doing”? (Incidentally, they beat the Yanks, 9-5.)
TRAPPED IN TEDIUM AND MANCLED BY MONOTONY
To what can we liken BIRTHDAY BOY?
Picture a play about three of the most uninteresting, self-absorbed, 30-something-+ whiners you would never want to meet. Trap them in a straightjacket of situation and imprison them in a moveable set that comes straight from the high school drama department.
Now throw these three obnoxious people plus (!OXYMORON ALERT!) an immature college student into the worst nuttin’-doin’ aspects of Jerry Seinfeld’s Show About Nothing — that is, say a lot about Nothing At All. Then give the actors lines they have to saw off, like lumberjacks felling spruce-lings because there’s no scenery or situations upon which to chew. Do this, and you will have a remote approximation of the tedious, dull, monotonous, lifeless, insipid, and uninspiring 90 minutes that is BIRTHDAY BOY.
The “why” and “when” for BTF choosing BB (Inside joke to THE PLANET’s regulars: Now that’s ironic!) seem obvious: Why? Because it’s inexpensive to produce. When? Because the play’s run gives it the “end-of-season filler spot,” a post-Labor-Day flyer that typically autopsies the otherwise vibrant Berkshire theater season with a whimper.
Playwright, Spare that Tree
The problems with BIRTHDAY BOY begin with writer Chris Newbound. They also end there. Newbound has a knack for capturing dialogue that should be left to roam the open plains. As a playwright, he’s like the leader of an African Safari sent to capture exotic beasts but chooses, instead, to bring back goldfish — the kind you can buy at K-Mart.
Newbound’s outbound prose is as exciting as discussing humidification with an accountant. It’s hard to imagine qualified theater people wanting to do anything other than put BIRTHDAY BOY out of its misery after the staged readings last year.
Heart Aches for the Actors
THE PLANET’s heart aches for actors James Ludwig (Matt), Tara Franklin (Melora), Keira Naughton (Arianne) and Nick Dillenburg (Julian). They have to slog through this mess until mid-October. They bravely put on their game faces and do their best to revive the corpse, but, alas, the body of work is left stiff and lifeless at the predictable end.
Let’s be clear. The acting is good. Ludwig reminds THE PLANET of a cross between a younger (“Jeannie”) Larry Hagman and Jack Lemmon circa, say, “The Apartment.” Oh what he could do with some decent material, we both wondered and observed. We saw the possibilities, but potential is a curse when stuck with banality of Newbound’s epic order.
Matt hates his job. He hates his coworkers, so he says. He’s turning 40. So what does Newbound do with the Big 4-0? He turns Matt Nolastname into worse than a stereotype and far less worthy than a caricature. Matt becomes a cartoon — not of Looney Tunes-type art but of Clutch Cargo limited animation stitchery. (Younger viewers, search the CC name to see what we mean).
The always solid Tara Franklin has nowhere to go with Melora Nolastname, a exercise-addicted chic also stuck in a dead-end marriage, this to a husband we mercifully never meet (thank you, Newbound, for having at least that much good sense; if you can’t handle three characters, don’t introduce a fourth).
Melora laments. See Melora lament. Lament, Melora, lament. And that’s the high point of the play’s Message.
Keira Naughton, given the all-for-naught role of Matt’s wife Arianne Nolastname, might have ground to sue the playwright for non-support and emotional cruelty. How unlikable is Arianne? At the end of the play, one of our dear women friends had this to say: “She ought to be bitch-slapped.” THE PLANET dropped to the floor and let it at that.
Nick Dillenburg plays Julien, Prof. Arienne’s love-struck students. He’s too young and too stupid to even understand that a woman of Arienne’s complications isn’t for newbies. The situation might have provided for some interesting “older woman Cougar a-la-Mrs. Robinson” moments, but Newbound again whiffs on three pitches. Dillenburg will be firing his agent after this role.
And the Rest of the Gang
Costumes (Charles Schoonmaker)? Non-existent. No, the characters aren’t naked, but they easily get by with clothes from their closet. In other words, their garb doesn’t suggest much about the characters, up or down.
Scenic Design (Kenneth Grady Baker)? Much better. The main stage functions variously as a corporate cafeteria, Matt and Arienne’s bedroom, and a hospital room. Assistants move props and furniture in and out, smoothly. That part is well done.
Baker places several sky-light type panels in a perimeter above the stage at back, left, and right. When back lit, the panels appear to be windows looking underwater. It cleverly suggests that these characters as Newbound writes them are in way over their heads. We would like to think, and we do, that Baker had his only little “heh-heh.”
Lighting design (Derek Wright) and sound design (Phil Pickens) are utilitarian and as nondescript as the play itself. Once size fits none.
Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over
Perhaps Newbound’s most embarrassing moment as a writer occurs at play’s end. Matt is in the company cafeteria after celebrating his birthday with Melora by drinking someone else’s beer (someone else’s beer; yeah, that’s the kind of people they are). She exits, stage left, saying, “Happy birthday, Matt.”
Gee, Do You Think That Might Be Last Lines of The Play, Meant to Be Ironic and Meaningful?
She exits, leaving Matt alone in the room darkened except by two candles.
Gee, Do You Think He Might End the Play By Blowing the Two Candles Out, Suggesting the Existential Darkness of this Veneer-Man’s Life As Well As His Loss of Hope? Do you think?
Happy birthday, Matt. Suggestion to the playwright: Revise the ending. Instead of Matt blowing out the candles, how about he take a gas can, pours if over the cafeteria, and burns the place down?
(singing) “For he’s not a jolly good fellow.”
Ladies and gentleman, if you know of any insomniacs desperate for a cure, bring them to BIRTHDAY BOY.
THE PLANET HAS TO FLY. BACK LATER.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.