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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.

19 Responses to “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’”

  1. Aclu
    September 1, 2011 at 8:14 am #

    Dan your reviews would carry a little weight if you ever liked anything it must be a very depressing existence to always hate everything. Your the kind of guy who would look at litter of puppies and wonder what they are so happy about. I think is time to up your medication the worlds not that bad its all in your head.

  2. michael
    September 1, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    ACLU,
    Stop reading this blog then, ya idiot.

  3. beezer
    September 1, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    Or get aclu!

    • danvalenti
      September 1, 2011 at 10:15 am #

      Touche’, Beez. Your rejoinder was better than any line in BIRTHDAY BOY.

  4. Aclu
    September 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Very good beezer, much more clever than anything Super Dan the mental midget ever wrote and as for you Mikey I’ll stay with the blog until Dan kicks me off. If you look back all my comments haven’t been negative and I don’t disagree with everything Dan says but I also don’t follow him like a sheep, the blog would greatly benefit from more people who think for themselves .

  5. michael
    September 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    ACLU,

    So you don’t follow like a sheep? Hmm, let’s see:

    • September 1, 2011 at 8:14 am — ACLU posts a comment.
    • September 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm — ACLU posts a comment.
    • August 31, 2011 at 11:37 am — ACLU posts a comment.
    • August 31, 2011 at 5:29 pm — ACLU posts a comment.
    • August 31, 2011 at 5:50 pm — ACLU posts a comment.
    • August 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm — ACLU posts a comment.
    • August 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm — ACLU posts a comment.

    And on … and on … and on … and on …

    Have you even considered the disturbing amount of time you spend each day on this blog? And do you go to bed each night thinking yourself clever at your ability to anonymously make light of the health problems Dan experienced several years ago? Is this really the best use of your time?

    You need to be nicer.

    Thanks.

  6. Aclu
    September 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    I’m not aware of any of Dans health problems I just think he has something negative to say about everything. I would love to reply to all the comments with smiles and rainbow wishes but it’s just not possible. As for the time I spend I think I spend about 10 min a day I’m not in an office and I don’t answer to anyone so it is my time to spend as I see fit. For the record I timed how long it took me to respond and I didn’t require a nap to come up with something clever to say. 57 seconds and I’m glad I spent this time with you.

    • danvalenti
      September 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      ACLU
      Apparently, you haven’t read my reviews of “Guys and Dolls,” “As You Like It,” and “Best of Enemies;” to name three plays, or my praise of Mike Ward, John Vosburgh, or Don Gleason, to name three people; or environmental stewardship, professional baseball in Pittsfield, or the importance of the downtown, to name three issues. I could go on and on. ACLU, I agree with you: Yes, you have agreed with me on occasion and disagreed on more. No problem there, and you’re a welcome guest, but even you know that I don’t have “something negative about everything.” Everything? That’s an absolute term that allows for no exception.

  7. danvalenti
    September 1, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Again, let me reiterate that with our COMMENTS section, we invite all comers, from caustic critics to ardent admirers and all in between. We want to keep the conversation freewheeling but at the same time at an argumentative, mature level. We shall try to protect everyone’s privilege of free speech here while policing and weeding out those who don’t advance the debate but only pile on in an unacceptable way. We work closely with our Webmaster on what’s allowable and what’s not. Best guide: Use good judgment and common sense. Thanks.

  8. Aclu
    September 1, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    That’s not fair Dan why do I have to use common sense when no one else does.

    • danvalenti
      September 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

      Aclu
      Well, if you read what I wrote, I said “good judgment and common sense” were the guidelines. Obviously, not everyone uses common sense, but some do. The more that do, even critics, the more we can encourage healthy debate, deliberation, and discussion. I would invite you to see “Birthday Boy,” — the play that started this comment link — for example, and write your a review. Want to? I’ll publish it on THE PLANET! Wanna?

  9. Aclu
    September 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    I’m a season ticket holder and am rarely disappointed with the performances and will respond after I see it. I also have season tickets to the colonals don’t for we have a whole weekend of baseball .go C’s

  10. San Simeon
    September 1, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    I often enjoy Aclu’s comments, and I also agree with Dan in trying to keep the comments on track but free flowing. I like both you guys!

  11. Aclu
    September 1, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    It’s all in good fun if we really wanted to make a change we would be part of the process not just commenting from the cheap seats out here in cyber world.

  12. danvalenti
    September 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Yup, all in good fun, but I’m an optimist. I believe the printed and spoken word can make a change — because time and time again, even in my modest career, it has!

  13. beezer
    September 2, 2011 at 6:01 am #

    Downtown looks like shiite.

  14. Aclu
    September 2, 2011 at 6:23 am #

    Downtown does look like sh@t but rebuilding is a process and we have a long way to go. But like mom always said “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

    • danvalenti
      September 2, 2011 at 11:02 am #

      Aclu:
      You mom was right. You obviously had a great one!

  15. Joetaxpayer
    September 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    As the city goes so will the downtown.Stop subsidising the downtown with my dollars.If the city as a whole can make a turn around the downtown will thrive with private monies.If not even with all the city has invested it will go backwards