Two guys. One neat. One a slob. One divorced. One separated, but still hopeful. A realistic living-room set. Lots of guy talk, mostly funny. Oh, God.
Although the wise-cracking ghost of early Neil Simon is certainly evident in the situation of "Things Being What They Are", and even in the sharpness of the plentiful one-liners, this play is anything but a knockoff. Wendy MacLeod is a smart and original playwright, and she uses her comedic method as a means of getting at some interesting and substantial questions about the role relationships play in men's lives, and how those relationships define the men. These two men are nicely developed characters, and both roles are beautifully acted in Kurt Beattie's skillfully directed production.
The story begins with Bill, a stable and responsible professional man, moving into a sterile, anonymous, "tasteful" apartment (handsomely designed by Don Yanik). His neighbor, Jack arrives, helps himself to a few beers left by the previous tenants, and begins to ask and tell much more than any newly met person wants to know. The sheer torrent of the early dialogue gains speed right up to Jack's assertion that "we're friends", to which Bill replies, "We're not friends. I just met you. You're just some neighbor who won't go home." It is at once completely true and completely irrelevant to the friendship which has already begun. The play is filled with just those sorts of cunning, witty and insightful devices. The playwright recognizes our questions about the likelihood of how such intimacy could begin so quickly in such a casual relationship, and answers it with "well, it does for these two".
Jeff Steitzer is terrific as Jack. Paunchy, red-faced, unwell looking, hyper, presumptuous beyond belief, uncouth and unabashed, he remains somehow appealing through the sheer audacity of his character. R. Hamilton Wright is an obvious opposite, but in not so obvious ways. No small part of that is the delicacy and precision of Mr. Wright's performance, but it is also the result of the playwright so carefully using the character of Bill as a kind of shadow, describing in absence what is all too present in Jack. Bill believes against all evidence, Jack believes nothing. Bill values stability, Jack takes every step as if crossing a trap door. Bill thinks decency is its own reward. Jack fears that decency is its own reward. What is always a danger with a two-person comedy, that it will become a kind of joke-happy ping-pong match, is deftly avoided in this play. The director's expert pace and emphasis maintains variety and punch; the action is quirky, gripping and satisfying in unexpected ways.
That attention to structure begins in the script. For example, a small favor that Jack asks of Bill, early in the play, becomes the vehicle for the entire resolution. Jack needs someone to pick him up at the hospital following a biopsy. Bill readily agrees, but as the second act opens, he has forgotten. One more person who Jack can't depend on. That generates an extended, unbelievably convoluted monologue about how he does get home, driving his ex-wife's new boyfriend's new truck home, with her beside him in the cab and the boyfriend perilously in the back, at least until an unexpected curve sends him crashing onto the top of Jack's parked car. It's a hilarious piece, beautifully crafted, and comically leading to the final moment when it all shifts, and we realize that the whole point of the journey was one of those unexpected bumps that mark one man's personal catastrophe. Like Bill, the sheer entertainment value of Jack's story leads us to a much deeper relationship with this man's claptrap life than we ever expected.
I think that's a major point of Wendy MacLeod's play. Some of the devices, in particular the use of a terminal illness, may be melodramatic. But the question raised is only possible within the greater question of our own mortality. What is the meaning of our lives if we have no real relationships? What is the point of our adventures, our wild truck rides, our commonplace pleasures and serious commitments if, in the end, we face our fate alone, and powerless? Like these two men, are we fated to realize whatever we most fear? Can we really depend on anyone? That's pretty weighty stuff for a play so filled with funny lines. But, "Things Being What They Are", we probably do end up laughing through our fears.
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