I didn’t wear a tuxedo to The Guild in Charlottetown, but I did go to the opening night performance of the latest ACT (a community theatre) production, All New People.
Written by Zack Braff (or is it Zach Braff, as IMDB would have us believe), and directed by Keir Malone.
Zack Braff is an actor I don’t really care for, was in the TV show Scrubs, which I didn’t care for, and wrote and stars in feature films, like Garden State, which I didn’t care for. So I wasn’t really too excited to see a play written by him. After watching it, I’m still not too excited about his writing.
In general, despite the contrived and uninspiring script, I thought it was a pretty enjoyable hour and a half of theater, thanks to solid performances by the entire cast.
However, if I had to use just one word to describe the production, it would be this: Aimless.
The script, in plot and purpose, is rather aimless. It relies too much on sitcom plotting and execution – complete with Jack Tripper-like pratfalls – where emotional moments are forced in between broad saucy, one liner jokes. Too many times, various character emotions and moods only exist long enough to serve the joke-of-the-moment, and then it’s back to each character’s broad, general, over-arching template moods or affectations.
It’s the story of Charlie, a 30 year old who, at the top of the play, is thwarted in an attempt to hang himself. The rest of the play is, basically, a diversion to until we find out why he wants to commit suicide. Three other characters are forced into this scenario, and each of them, likewise, has emotional secrets and baggage that get divulged throughout the story.
The producers made sure that it was known that this was not a typical ACT production, and that it was, in fact, filled with adult themes, strong language, and, enticingly (to me) “extreme content”. Yeah, the warnings were necessary, I suppose, because there is strong language, and simulated drug use. And the topic of suicide is adult in theme (although it’s handled pretty immaturely in this script, I would say). But I was sorely disappointed that the “extreme content” warning was a misnomer, at least to my indelicate sensibilities. There was nothing even approaching extreme content, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe that was merely a warning to all the grey-haired ladies who like to go to ACT productions, used to seeing Jane Austen plays or Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.
Charlie (Cameron MacDonald – who, by the way, is my son) is suicidal, as the play opens. His attempt to end his life is interrupted by real estate agent Emma (Emily Anne Fullerton), who calls on her friend Myron (Tim Wartman) to come and bring drugs and join the party. And the quartet becomes complete when prostitute Kim (Ashley Clark) shows up, as a surprise one-night birthday gift for Charlie.
The cast is strong and for the most part, sharp and on point. Each actor had a number of moments where they shone, both comically or dramatically, and they more than aptly succeeded in keeping me interested and invested in their characters, even through the sometimes-slog of the script, and some directing distractions (which I’ll get to later).
Cameron’s character was written as the least “showy” of the quartet (and undoubtedly the least enjoyable to play), and kudos to him for not succumbing to the choice of trying to join in with the broadness and quirkiness inherent in the other three characters. He’s the straight man in this comedy, and he plays it well. He is particularly good in the moments when he explains why he’s in such emotional turmoil. There are a few times, too, however, when he – the actor, not the character – seems a bit lost, blocking-wise, on the stage, unsure as to what to do next. Good direction should nip that in the bud.
Emily Anne Fullerton has a lot of dialogue to get through in this play, and she nails a whole lot of it. Her character is wildly inconsistent though (a challenge of the script, I’d say), and is often forced to make leaps of emotion that would demoralize lesser actors. That she succeeds so well, and so often, is a testament to her abilities. A strong comedic performance. Less so, with the dramatic stuff though – but again, I think that might be the fault of the script, which is dramatically shallow.
Tim Wartman’s Myron is the most interesting character of the four. It’s obvious that Tim is having a blast playing this role, and for the most part, he’s absolutely on target. There are some pacing issues, at times, where he kind of slows the pacing down. Whether that’s nerves of opening night, acting or directing choices, or a fault of the script, it’s a fairly minor complaint. A fun character and performance to watch.
Ashley Clark does lots of good work with a rather unappealing character. Actually, the character is appealing enough – it’s the writing her as caricature that I find unappealing. Kim is the most under-written, least fleshed-out character of the four we see on stage. More a misogynistic stereotype than an actual character, Clark nonetheless finds ways to flesh out enough warmth and charm and humanity to make me care about a cartoon.
When speaking about the direction, I keep coming back to that word: “aimless”. Keir Malone does a pretty good job of keeping the action moving forward (although the pacing does bog down a fair bit during the second half), and manages to showcase some really nice performances from the four on-stage actors.
But the whole thing was just a bit… aimless. Again, a part of that is an uninspiring script, but the direction could have been sharper. There was far too much literal aimlessness, where the characters would seem like they’re just walking around the stage without any specific purpose or motivation – Charlie’s character, in particular, suffered from “wandering body” syndrome. It just seemed like these characters were moving a lot of the time, just to get them moving.
Many moments throughout the production were also rushed or glossed over, nullifying or diminishing the potential for sharper comedy or deeper dramatics. Normally, I wouldn’t be so nit-picky about such things, but when they continually happen, it becomes something worth noting.
As example, two in particular, come at the beginning of the show.
First moment: Charlie is standing on a chair, with noose around his neck. He is about to step off, ending his life. Then he realizes he’s holding a lit cigarette, and decides to place it on the coffee table, just out of reach, Charlie now faces a dilemma – does he try to reach for the table, with the noose still around his neck (and risk slipping and falling, thus achieving his initial goal), or does he get down off the chair, thus ending, at least momentarily, this suicide attempt.
There is a lot that should be taking place in that very small moment, and it is ripe for comedy. Yet, it fell flat to me, because it was only done in half-measures. The idea of that fun dilemma was there, but it was glossed over. It was more a joke hinted at than actually implemented and performed.
Second moment: When Emma first arrives, she opens a door to see Charlie with a rope around his neck. Rather than taking even a moment to allow the reality of the situation to affect her, she impossibly jumps into her “oh my god, what are you doing” line, before the door even finished opening. She didn’t allo
w any time for her character to comprehend what she was seeing. Maybe it was an acting choice, maybe a directing choice, maybe an acting aberration that only happened that one night – whatever the reason, it takes a viewer (me, at least) out of the reality of the moment.
And then, there’s the videos (featuring the on-stage cast plus cameos by Tim Gormley, Ben Hartley and Paul Whelan). I assume this is written into the script, and perhaps there’s nothing a director can do about it, but there are a few times where the on-stage action freezes so that we can see back-story on the various characters (hints as to what their emotional turmoil is).
I found this device highly intrusive and awkward, and totally disrupted the flow of the play. And I didn’t think the video portions weren’t very well produced, edited and/or performed.
I’ll just touch on a couple more things that bothered me:
Because of the use of video, and the necessity to have it projected onto the screen behind the action, and because that screen is lighted, and because the noose is on stage the whole time, hanging from the ceiling… there is a shadow on the screen of the noose. I found that shadow distracting. Again, so very nit-picky, but, for me, that’s something a more diligent director should be aware of and solve.
Speaking of the noose: the cord was so long that if Charlie did step off the chair with the noose around his neck, nothing would have happened, because the noose actually goes down to about his knees. It totally and absolutely takes away any threat or reality of the situation when Charlie is standing on the chair. Because the real reality of it is, there is no danger or threat of suicide. I assume the extra length was for safety concerns, but, again, there needs to be a better solution.
Rob’s 7-Word Review of the ACT (a community Theatre) production of All New People: Strong performances despite script and direction missteps