The new psychodrama by August Schulenberg and the Flux Theatre Ensemble takes place in Boston – not the city, but “the country of Boston,” that is, Red Sox and Bruins territory, which extends as far as White River Junction, VT. That formulation comes courtesy of a diminutive fireplug named Sam (Isaiah Tanenbaum) and his friend Stu (Matt Archambault), the brooding, baseball-capped, slightly soft-bellied stoner at the center of a group of working-class antiheroes.
The gang hangs out under the power lines in the old Massachusetts coastal town of Marblehead with beers and bongs, long past the age when this seemed a reasonable way to pass the time, laughing, ribbing each other, and, in that great tradition of classic American drama, waxing unnaturally poetic. And as the story unfolds they wrestle with two other staples of that same stage tradition that don’t usually appear together in the same play: the dead friend whose life is still touching them (in semi-magical ways); and the old member of the gang who has become a success in the Big City (Hollywood, in this case) and now come back to visit and shake things up.
Lori E. Parquet and Anna Rahn in Honey Fist, photo by Ken Glickfeld
Schulenberg’s script and a fine cast directed by Kelly O’Donnell put over this potentially seen-it-before material with guts and style. Alongside Stu, there’s Sam, the angsty ball of fire; Rene (memorably played by Anna Rahn, who was also in the Flux’s less-successful Ajax in Iraq); and Sul (Chinaza Uche), the quiet one whose smoldering core hides an unrequited love.
Their old friend Joey (played with convincing rawness by Nat Cassidy), a celebrated filmmaker who makes movies based on the lives of his old buddies, turns up with a celebrity girlfriend – a pop singer and movie star named Gretyl (Lori E. Parquet, who was in both Ajax in Iraq and Flux’s superb Dog Act). Joey is after true stories about their late friend Justin for a film he’s planning, and he offers a Porsche to whomever tells the best. But Joey’s habit of co-opting the friends’ lives for his films turns out to be a sore spot, and the drama plays out as we inch towards the truth about Justin’s death.
The vivid characters, funny dialogue, and nervous pace result in a play that’s entertaining throughout. What isn’t convincing becomes, then, mostly forgivable; and what isn’t convincing is something pretty big: what actually happens. The scheme the gang hatches to get the better of Joey is the big plot turn, but I just wasn’t buying it, nor could I credit how Gretyl acts at the end of her ordeal, or the way she and Stu bond at the end after all that’s happened. It isn’t that implausible developments are verboten in a play, of course; sometimes they can even be the meat, or at least the potatoes, of the dramatic meal. But they have to feel earned by the characterizations and interactions, and these don’t.
Fortunately, sequences of captivating (and funny) action and dialogue with more balanced flavors of exaggeration stitch together the main events. Rene falls into prolix ecstasies at meeting Gretyl, whose music she idolizes; Sul makes a marriage proposal at an extremely inappropriate time; Stu finally gives up the true story of Justin’s mysterious end. These and other such happenings are the meat and potatoes of this play, and they go down very satisfyingly indeed. They make this a good piece of theater. A fundamental story that I could believe in, or suspend my disbelief in, would have made it a great one.
Honey Fist runs through May 18 in repertory with Sans Merci by Johnna Adams at the 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th St., NYC. Tickets online at OvationTix or call 866-811-4111.