Friday, July 4, 2014

38. Review of THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES (July 3, 2014)


If you went to a New York high school, chances are your 25th reunion was held in a catering hall, perhaps at a nice hotel where people coming from out of town could reserve a room. In Stephen Berber’s oddly titled THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES, at the Labyrinth Theatre, a high school class that graduated in 1989 is having its reunion but it’s in the actual school itself, city not specified; this allows the playwright to set his scene in the music room, where the chief characters, escaping the festivities, randomly gather to work out their issues. The music from the affair is heard dimly in the background and, when the door to the room opens, it gets much louder (thanks to Jessica Paz’s good sound design), so we’re always aware of the events going on offstage. Given the outrageous implausibility of Mr. Berber’s plot and the cartoonish behavior of his characters, some audience members may yearn to join the offstage party and leave this bunch of losers to its own devices. Surely, something more believable and interesting must be happening at the reunion proper, where one might wish to ponder: Is the class beauty still hot? Has the star athlete turned to lard? Who’s become famous or rich? Is anyone interested in hooking up? Do I regret not having kept in touch with any of these people? And, of course, who’s married to whom, who’s divorced from whom, and who’s come out of the closet?  
Rear: Samuel Ray Gates. Front, from left: Bill Dawes, Amir Arison, Matthew Zickel. Photo: Monique Carboni.

There aren’t many plays about reunions of one sort or another but the subject practically forms a subgenre of movies. School reunions are the most common material, which brings to mind such popular films as SOMETHING WILD, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (which began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play), ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, and, of course, THE BIG CHILL. Anyone who’s ever gone to a reunion, especially one taking place as long as 25 years after graduation, recognizes the feelings of trepidation involved because they know that while they’re judging others in terms of how well or poorly they’ve fared, they themselves will be under everyone else’s microscope. Issues of pride, ego, academic and personal rivalries, friendship, sexual experiences, and so on will surface, and people will go home in different states of elation or depression, not unlike the way they often react to seeing the lives of others they haven’t seen in decades lived out in photos and status reports on Facebook.

Some of this occurs in Mr. Berber’s play, of course, when its protagonists wander into the music room in search of one another. It starts with Les (Bill Dawes), a mustached fight choreographer who keeps noting—as if it’s somehow more prestigious—that he now works more in film than theatre, citing a movie in which his contribution was to stage a fight scene in which a remote control was thrown. Les is videotaping himself creating a message of hope for the wife of his high school buddy, Jim. We learn more about this when another high school pal enters. This is Reg (Amir Arison), a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking person, who says he’s of Persian descent even though he also has a Jewish aunt in Afghanistan (?@!). Reg works as an accountant for the federal government. Jim is a sneaker mogul with a factory in Chad, where, it seems, he's been kidnapped by Chadian radicals in retaliation for the detention in California by the FBI of a suspected Chadian terrorist. Pretty soon, we begin to realize that these characters may seem reasonably mature men in their early 40s, but that they’re not really playing with full decks. The same will be true of all the other characters. On the surface they seem relatively successful and well adjusted, but underneath they’re still the uptight, insecure kids they were two and a half decades earlier.

Then we meet Phil (Mathew Maher), the one-year-younger brother of Les and Reg’s classmate, Dante.  Phil, who’s openly gay and therefore considers himself an expert on all things homosexual, gives the playwright numerous opportunities for gay-slanted bantering, most of it silly and insignificant. A subtext of homoerotic preoccupations gradually emerges but its ultimate purpose is vague. By now, as well, the air is heavy with overheated vulgarities. As the plot heats up, gin and tonics are continually washed down, but all the g and t’s in the world wouldn’t inspire what these characters soon get up to. Nor would it elicit the occasional outbursts of eloquence that emerge from the same mouths that use adolescent expressions like “vagina farts.”

Soon, it’s Dante’s turn to enter. A banker, he’s the most formally dressed, wearing a dark business suit and tie, his black hair slicked down. Dante is an Italian-American who is converting to Judaism and insists on his kids wearing yarmulkes even though they attend a parochial school (presumably a Catholic one); why Dante himself isn’t wearing one is a question for director Anne Kauffman and costume designer Emily Rebholz. Dante, who’s wound tighter than a two-dollar watch, holds a grudge against Reg for having had sex with his girlfriend, Carrie, in their senior year, in the nurse’s room, without a condom, and from behind. This information is repeated several times in the play, just in case we forget it. Pretty soon, Dante, obviously fed up with his life (he’s going through custody proceedings), joins the conversation about how the guys should respond to Jim’s abduction by taking action. Reg's idea of starting a peace Website on Jim's behalf is unanimously rejected. So far, so good. A satire on everyday citizens with frustrated personal lives seeking to do something meaningful, even risky, to save an old friend, exaggerated as the circumstances may be.

What happens though is that the discussion escalates until the idea of bombing the FBI arises, modified so that only a file cabinet in the local FBI office is bombed. The point of the attack is to draw attention to the FBI’s improper detention of the suspected Chadian terrorist. You see, he could in no way be guilty because Phil assures everyone he knows for a fact that the guy is gay, with the kind of “typical” gay personality that would never commit an act of terrorism. When asked how he himself could do be involved an act of anti-FBI violence, he declares: “I’m a different breed, meaning I’m not your typical gay man.” Instead, he’s “a complex gay man as opposed, to, like James Franco.”
By now, all sense of plausibility, believability, rationality, logic, or what have you has been scuttled. The plan, however, is still on the table and a resolution is required, so we’re forced to see how the playwright works his way out of the situation and brings it back to reality. For one thing, he interrupts the progress of the plot to introduce Carrie, the girl whose sexual encounter with Reg still rankles Dante. Jeanine Serrales, sheathed in a tight, red dress, gives a sensationally over-the-top performance, as the drunk, promiscuous, and potty mouthed Carrie, which gives us some relief from the idiocies of the male characters. There's little reason for her presence but her scene steals the show. 
After she leaves, and the plot to bomb the FBI file cabinet on Jim’s behalf heats up again, guess who shows up? Yes, it’s Jim. You see, he wasn’t really abducted at all, but merely took three months off to marry a Chadian girl and go to live in her village and learn the culture (German, too, while he was at it.) Jim, by the way, is African-American, giving the play yet another touch of diversity: Persian-American, Italian-American Catholic converting to Judaism, African-American, gay, woman, guy with mustache—see what I mean? What happens subsequently is so farfetched, I’ll reveal no more. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Despite my skepticism regarding the plot, the written script has many moments that promise laughs, both because of their often imaginative use of profanity and because they manage to capture a kind of potentially laugh-worthy nasty sarcasm. But in performance, as directed by Ms. Kauffman, they too often fall flat because the actors tend to shout them when they’re not being simply thrown away. An example of the latter might be when Dante attacks theatre by saying it’s “greatest cultural contribution is fucking CATS” and Les answers, “We don’t fuck cats! 

Most of the actors are familiar Off Broadway faces, and they give their all, playing for realism instead of farce, which is generally the best way to make farce work if the material is innately funny. But whatever humor lies dormant in Mr. Belber’s text is hard to laugh at when nothing you see before you is remotely convincing. The miscasting of Mr. Maher, one of New York’s busiest thespians, is also unhelpful; for one thing, his physical presence and way of speaking make Phil too quirky to be the guy we’re told by Carrie is someone all the girls in high school wanted to have sex with.

The Labyrinth usually puts a lot of effort into creating realistic sets, and Lee Savage’s design for THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES belongs at the top of the list for its fully realized replication of a cinderblock-walled, high school music room, complete with several rows of empty chairs. Japhy Weideman’s lighting, which uses a good deal of florescent lighting, nevertheless finds effective ways to shape the space, and—apart from my cavil about Dante’s not having a yarmulke—Ms. Rebholz’s costumes all suit their wearers’ characters well, especially Carrie's sizzling, red dress..

THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES gets its title from a speech Dante delivers, one whose rhetoric seems out of keeping with this uptight nutcase. In it he recalls Les having said something about friendship that seems as far from the Les we’ve seen as Jupiter is from Earth, although Les says he doesn’t remember saying it at all. Dante says Les compared friendship to godliness, that “it is our way into the divine. . . . And when we’re there, we’ll know because our sense of loyalty will run deep like a river and our call to action, when the shit hits the fan, will hurtle us forward with every particle of our body, from the tips of our brain to the muscles in our toes.” Regardless of whether Les ever said it or Dante is making it up, that last clause perfectly expresses my incredulity, from my brains to my toes, while watching this play.