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Even if Patience weren’t one of the more bracing social comedies to rear its head in several seasons, you’d have to love it for bringing Michael Willis back to area stages. From the moment this protean bear of a man wanders into the show’s health-clubby opening scene, his impressive girth clad only in towels, cell phone attached to one ear, nostrils flaring as he berates a subordinate for letting a stray L mar the “perflection” of a manuscript he’s reading, you’ll realize how you’ve missed him.
A scene later, he’s a world-weary Chinese waiter shuffling around the stage in a coolie hat, then a laid-off drunk wondering how cave-dwelling early man’s search for food could have evolved into modern man’s pursuit of wealth. Later, he’s a conscience-stricken technology exec anguishing over dumping a partner in his firm, and before long, he’s morphed into a quip-spewing, show-tune-singing rabbi looking for “one in a minyan.”
Willis is not, let’s note, the evening’s central figure. He’s merely (and I use that term loosely) a member of a genuinely stellar company of quick-change artists who act as foils for a supremely unlikable hero called Reuben (Mitchell Hébert) who might as well be named Job. A driven, self-absorbed businessman who is as aggressive on a squash court and behind the steering wheel as he is at board meetings, Reuben hasn’t an inkling that his life is about to collapse around his earsor that he’ll have a hand in bringing it down. With the arrogance of a man so used to getting what he wants that he’s terribly careless about protecting what he has, he’s abrasive with the co-founder of his company and dismissive with his wife, and he practically runs over a scooter rider who has the temerity to cross his path. Then, a surprise encounter with a friend he once betrayed results in a literally life-changing conversation. “You have everything you need, but do you need everything you have?” wonders the friend. “What would you do if you lost it all?”
Reuben soon finds out. His partners drive him out of the company; his wife leaves him, taking with her the kids he never had time for; a saintly brother to whom he hasn’t spoken in years dies abruptly. And when Reuben turns for solace to a woman with whom he once contemplated an affair, the worst thing possible happensshe offers comfort and he finds he’s not comforted.
Canadian playwright Jason Sherman has crafted the play as a sort of Reuben’s Cube, where neat solutions often seem just a twist or two away, but every twist only turns up torments in fresh combinations. That this puzzle image sticks with you may be due less to the play’s structure than to Howard Shalwitz’s sleek staging and to the glassy white cube with swinging walls that designer Elena Zlotescu uses to frame the action. Seemingly antiseptic at first, it begins to look like a 3-D Mondrian painting as Colin Bills’ illumination floods it with sharp-edged blocks of color. And as the characters push its panels this way and that, arranging and rearranging Reuben’s world, it transforms into a sort of cage, closing in on him until he’s all but trapped at the lip of the stage.
Sherman’s script works in much the same way, shutting down Reuben’s options, hemming in his thinking with talk of chaos theory and butterfly wing-flapping that acquires hurricane forcenot to mention the seemingly idle jokes in which punch lines follow setups by half a dozen scenes. The author’s way with language isn’t always as Stoppardian as his conceptualizing, and he lets the torments go on a little longer than he probably should, but he certainly covers a lot of intriguing ground as his characters muse about quantum physics (one of Reuben’s brothers is a science prof), the nature of time, the vagaries of the uncertainty principle, and the unknowability of emotions.
The central character mostly professes to be unable to make head or tails of this chatterhe’s too busy assigning blame and pinpointing the moment things started going wrong for him. Nor is he inclined to examine the part his own actions played in his downward spiral. And, though audiences will likely prefer the opposite tack, attributing his fall to self-absorption and an inability to learn from mistakes, the playwright insists that that approach is no less suspect. Reuben may be a jerk, but go the causal route and use that fact to account for the loss of his job and family and you’ll be left with no way to explain his saintly brother’s death. As a self-examining unexamined man, Reuben is almost alarmingly easy to identify with, and once you’ve identified, things get squirm-inducing pretty quickly. Sure you’re different from himmore thoughtful, less callousbut in a world where bad things don’t happen just to bad people, where’s the safety in that?
The story of Job isn’t usually as entertaining as it is in Patience, but then neither is it as secular a chronicleor as open to political interpretation. Seen in macro terms, as the tale of a selfish society throwing its weight around and then being surprised at having to go it alone when there’s a crisis, it has a certain currency. Seen simply as a middle-class success story gone wrong, it’s decently disquieting. Seen as social satire, it’s darkly amusing.
And seen as a vehicle for one of the snappiest casts Woolly has assembled in years, it’s undeniably invigorating. Credit Hébert for daring to keep Reuben snarky and angry when it must have been tempting to go for more sympathetic shadings. Naomi Jacobson has a wickedly wayward way with brittle cocktail chatter, then breaks your heart without a word when she catches another woman in a betrayal she once made herself. Marty Lodge is differently comic as an angrily competitive businessman and as a self-deluding professor captured mid-midlife crisis. (Watching him shift mental gears in a traffic jam is a riot.) As Reuben’s long-suffering wife, Kimberly Schraf is skittishly distraught in her early scenes and then gathers herself to deliver one hell of a verbal haymaker in Act 2. And though Kosha Engler and Timmy Ray James are saddled with parts that are primarily plot devices (in the latter case, a death-defying, too-tricky-for-its-own-good one), they invest their characters with enough nuance and idiosyncrasy that they seem no less rounded and full-bodied than their compatriots.
And then there’s Willis, as effortlessly funny and persuasive as he was a decade agowhen last he appeared with Woolly Mammothwhether he’s cajoling, kvetching, or just shuffling across the stage. The economy with which he brushes in character must be a director’s dream, and Shalwitz uses him on more than one occasion to punctuate scenes and provide transitions with nary a word. At one point, when Reuben shoots a glance his way, he becomes the dead brother we’ve never seenjust by standing still on a staircase. It’s good to have him back. CP