Next Stop: The Regionals

by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Lilianna Blain-Cruz
Played at
New York Theatre Workshop

by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Neil Pepe
Played at
Atlantic Theatre

Book and Lyrics by Dan Collins
Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Played at
The Public Theater

Reviewed by David Spencer

There’s a structural trope very common in plays that deal with contemporary topics  that, for me, often removes the teeth from the subject at hand. It’s the build toward an ambiguous ending. I’m not talking about an ending in which, after you’ve stripped away your characters’ protective layers, you leave them with hope, yet on the brink of despair (That Championship Season, The Iceman Cometh); or having done what they must for the greater good but wondering at what perhaps deeper cost (Equus); those kinds of endings, despite their seeming openness, manage nonetheless to fulfill their stories, to wrap up their thematic exploration; to leave you with something to ponder in the wake of dramatic catharsis.

            No, I’m talking about plays that end at the abyss, arguably without “descending action” (the tag of drama that brings you home after the climax point) but absolutely without something in the way of summation.

            Ironically, I feel this so keenly because, much of the time, these plays are awfully well done. In Red Speedo, by Lucas Hnath, recently at New York Theatre Workshop, there’s Ray (Alex Breaux), the competitive swimmer secretly taking performance enhancing drugs, his older brother and lawyer-manager, Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), practiced at getting him out of jams, but maybe not this time; because of Ray’s incorruptible Coach (Peter Jay Fernandez); and complications arising from Ray possibly getting back with his former girlfriend, Lydia (Zoë Winters). A top-notch cast, under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, verbal-firing like the players in a West Wing episode (even Ray; he has no smarts, but he has a kind of rhythm), made for a compelling evening up to a point, but came that point and I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was a little sports-drama or a parable about the use of drugs in the sports game. And that’s because it allowed you enough room to wonder if the rights and wrongs of the matter were not absolute; while at the same time presenting characters who were themselves so morally challenged and/or compromised (except the Coach) that you couldn’t get a clean bead on the issue, because motivation impacted morality.


I’m still not sure what to make of Hold On to Me Darling, an almost O’Neill-length comedy—I think comedy—by the redoubtable Kenneth Lonergan about a narcissistic Country Western star of films and recordings. His name is Strings McCrane (Timothy Olyphant) and he’s haunted by the recent death of the mother who never thought that much of his accomplishments. He has no compunction about affectionately abusing the loyalty of his fawning assistant Jimmy (Keith Nobbs) or of casually womanizing with serious pronouncements of devotion, either; not that there aren’t those who aren’t seduced by his celebrity and as willing to compromise themselves to it, though they have various burn-out points. It is after all masseuse Nancy (Jenn Lyon) who first comes onto him, before he decides to come onto his cousin Essie (Adele Clemons). The only characer not easily swayed by Strings—not easily, not for long and never self-deceptively—is his blue-collar brother Duke (C.J. Wilson); though it pays to note that Strings hasn’t done very much of anything to get Duke out of his blue collar, except front him a loan once, long ago. (For my money, Duke is the best character in the piece, his wry cynicism making him unwittingly the play’s wittiest character.) Spoiler-avoidance keeps me from discussing the remaining character, Mitch (Jonathan Hogan).

            The production has received lots of deserving approbation for the quality of Lonergan’s characterization and dialogue as well as a fine cast under Neil Pepe’s unobtrusive but sure-handed direction; but the characters don’t really move that far forward, if at all; and as for stripping away layers to reveal secrets or strip away façades to deeper truths…really, not so much. The compounded details seem only to make the characters more of what we already know them to be. And the play ends with a glimmer of redemptive hope for Strings that seems totally unearned.

            The night I attended, as Strings defaulted to his womanizing behavior in perhaps its nerviest manifestation, some guy in a row behind me let out with, “Oh, Jesus Christ.” The audience laughed. It even got to Olyphant, who had to check himself before continuing. On the one hand, I guess you can say the guy was “involved” enough to react; on the other hand, what price glory, you know?


Southern Comfort, the musical based on a documentary about a community of transgender people in the rural South, had a return NYC engagement at the Public Theatre after a NYC debut at CAP21. Slightly sharpened, shortened and revised—essentially, as one would hope, a better version of the same already worthwhile experience, the show by Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music), remained of course under the direction of Thomas Caruso, and featured about 2/3 the same cast.

            My feelings about it remain as they were when I first saw it (though then, as now, it was too late to have logged a review while it was running; and at that time I didn’t); I admire it a bit at arms’ length, though it seems to move others more than it does me—and, in keeping with its own spirit, that’s perfectly okay with me; it’s noble and deserves its support. Indeed, the show manages a difficult trick for a musical, in sustaining a narrative about a community, and avoiding focus sprawl, making clear that all its members want some version of the same thing: love and acceptance for who they are, and each other. This unification provides a center, which is embodied in thin, wiry, goateed Robert (formerly Barbara) Eads (played to almost unsettling perfection by Annette O’Toole).

            I don’t know what financial energies have buttressed Southern Comfort thus far, but having had two well-regarded NYC engagements, and being an easily producible show in regional and stock/amateur venues—and one that many would love to produce—I’d say to those forces that the show has all the validation it needs for a cast album to be recorded and distributed. That’s its most important mission right now. That’ll trigger its future life. The score is sensitive, caring, intelligent and country-tinged enough to be very attractive to many theatres; and the album is what’ll sell it. Don’t let the opportunity pass.

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