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In fact, it was so cold last weekend that the cat parked her furry butt on the bedroom radiator, which she does only in moments of great feline pique or dire meteorological need. So the thought that perhaps there’d be something warm and/or fuzzy about Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night, the latest effort from Guise Theatre at Church Street, was pretty much irresistible.
No such luck.
Things get heated rather quickly, on the other hand, over at Woolly Mammoth, where sexy Carol Monda and hunky Christopher Lane get down to the basics before the plot of Bill Corbett’s The Big Slam is very far advanced at all. But the laughs start even before the clothes come off, with the hilariously cheesy New Age pickup lines these two exchange in a New York bar, and they keep coming pretty consistently throughout the evening.
Corbett went looking for comic inspiration between the covers of books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Warrior Within, and damned if he didn’t find it.
He’s written a keenly intelligent spoof of the self-help/self-empowerment culture, exposing the hypocritical greed and ambition its gooey, touchy-feely language tries to conceal, but never forgetting that the people who get caught up in the rush to get a guru are no less human than the rest of us. It’s equal parts cynicism and tender-hearted humanist argument, and it’s as bright as it is naughty: Any playwright who assumes his audience is anthropologically aware enough to understand when he says one character’s “Alpha status is far from certain” is a winner in my book.
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Having fallen in lust, if not something more noble, Stephanie (Monda as “a pit-bull, wipe-the-floor-with-your-ass attorney” who’s still smarting from her near disbarment for client-stealing) and Russell (Lane as a no-account layabout who’s just perceptive and glib enough to avoid actual work without alienating his friends and colleagues) find capitalist Nirvana in self-actualization strategies delivered via UPS on an endless series of expensive audiotapes. (Russell, on being grilled about his sudden disappearance from the office: “I’ve been right here. With Steph. Having my consciousness reshaped.”)
Jointly inspired and nauseatingly cheery about their “new-mode” thinking, they launch an “enterprise” that’s rigidly organized according to visionary New Age principles for success butsurprisehas no actual product. Still, their enthusiasm (and their personal charisma) is enough to overcome the better judgment of Russell’s best friend Orrin (John Kirkman), who’s the narratora little tightly wound, maybe, but good-hearted and shy, a frustrated academic who still dreams of teaching history “when the world is in the mood to employ teachers again,” and the kind of guy who has $10,000 stashed away just so the likes of these two can talk him out of it.
These three, and Rhea Seehorn as the UPS driver/aspiring artist who proves both their commercial salvation and their organizational downfall, have a real feel for the brisk rhythms of Corbett’s writing; scenes have a snap and a buoyant energy, the actors hit their marks (and there are many in this energetically theatrical and structurally complex show) with assurance, and director Casey Stangl never lets the pace flag.
Monda and Lane are accomplished and funny and magnetic as they parade and pose on Tony Cisek’s impressively impressionist set, and Seehorn is a gifted physical comic, as funny as any area performer, but Orrin is the real hero of the play, the part that demands the broadest range, and Kirkman is just terrific. He makes Orrin a lovable putz with a prodigious repertoire of hangdog looks and yearning expressions, nervous stammers and anxious double takes, and when he finally loses his cool it’s absolutely hysterical.
Back at Church Street, it’s not the production or the actors that are disappointing so much as the material. New York-based playwright James Edwin Parker sets up that hoariest of confessional situations, the one-night stand, and populates it, predictably enough, with two emotional cripplesone a needy pretty-boy and the other a not-particularly-forthcoming hardbody. Peter, the latter, is as single-mindedly horny as his name is presumably meant to suggest. The other, who goes without a name for most of the evening because coldhearted Peter seems not to remember it, is the type who grills a trick for details about his first sexual experience almost before the two of them have concluded his latest.
Trouble is, Parker doesn’t seem to have decided which of these gentlemen the audience is meant to root for. Or maybe he thinks he’s written a subtle and searching character study that avoids easy answers and refuses to take sides. (He hasn’t; he’s written a slight and somewhat perplexing show with two underdeveloped characters, a regrettable quantity of unlikely dialogue, a distressing lack of actual action aside from one or two unconvincing plot twists, and no resolution whatsoever.) Whatever his intentions, he’s made one character offensively whiny but appealingly vulnerable, the other offensively callous but appealingly level-headed; the net effect of his evenhandedness (equivocation?) is that despite commendable performances by Jeff Mandon and Fred Harris, we’re not disposed to care much about either character.
Mandon, in particular, is getting better with experience. If memory serves, he was nicely quirky as Howell Hawkins, the photojournalist who romanced Ricki Lake in Serial Mom, and reasonably winning as Steve, who helped the title character rediscover love in Source Theater’s Jeffrey; he’s done other bit film parts and small-to-medium-size theatrical roles around town, too. Here he plays the clingy half of the odd couple, and he does some genuinely impressive work. He’s at his best, understated, quiet, and honestly affecting, when his character reminisces about his college boyfriend, the first and last love of his life. Where he’s awkward, it’s generally because the playwright has given him something embarrassing to say. “You’re delectable. Yum,” for instance.
Harris isn’t quite as polished, but he does give a fairly assured performance. Taciturn, broody characters like Peter aren’t the easiest to play, and Harris isn’t a tremendously experienced actor, which makes his un-self-conscious work all the more notable.
Because this a commercial vehicle aimed primarily at an urban gay male audience, there is nudity before there is dialogue; indeed, there’s more nudity than pretty much anything else, so it’s a good thing that both men seem comfortable in their own skins. Convincing bedroom behavior is presumably difficult when there’s a roomful of people watching, but Mandon and Harris manage to pull it off with a minimum of mannerism; there are one or two tentative spots, but generally they seem no more nor less aware of their nakedness than one might reasonably expect two horny homosexuals to be. And for that much, at least, we can be grateful. Clumsy performances would have made Two Boys downright unwatchable; as constituted, it’s merely unremarkablerather like a conversation about the weather.CP