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Even patrons who can’t figure out what to make of the physical jungle at the center of One Shoe Off, Tina Howe’s midlife-crisis comedy, are likely to have a grand time chuckling as they stumble through its metaphorical underbrush.
The metaphor is simple—reaching middle age is like getting lost in a forest—and transparent enough that another playwright might have considered it adequately thrashed through in a few lines of dialogue. Howe and director Nick Olcott instead render it with a lush, full-blown physicality that suggests an absurdism neither of them is interested in pursuing very far.
Still, at Round House Theatre it’s undeniably eye-catching. Designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. has conceived for Dinah (Jane Beard) and her husband Leonard (Mitchell Hebert) a charming, split-level suburban home that is rapidly being overwhelmed by vegetation. An enormous tree has pushed its way through living-room floorboards and branched out upstairs. Vines are sending tendrils up table legs and stairway banisters. Tubers and squashes huddle in every out-of-the-way corner.
Though closed doors obscure the rest of the house, it’s easy to believe the couple’s assertion that their home has lately been awash in “vegetable lust.” Reports of “carrots thrusting” through the den’s carpeting and “zucchini stiffening, eggplants swelling, and endive panting” in sundry other rooms confirm the general impression of nature run amok. “You should see the acorn squash under the bed,” chirps the hostess to a dinner guest who appears somewhat stricken at the thought of such unbridled fecundity.
None of which has much to do with anything except insofar as it justifies the mealtime appearance of a bushel-basket-size salad bowl and a veritable lettuce explosion when the salad requires tossing. Elaborate production effects notwithstanding, fertility isn’t really what One Shoe Off is about.
Unless, that is, you count the characters’ fertile minds, in which seeds of doubt are definitely sprouting like weeds. Theatrical couple Leonard and Dinah are in mid- midlife crisis as the lights come up—he because he hasn’t gotten an acting part in ages and is about to play host to a buddy who has become a wildly successful Hollywood director, she because as a costume designer of some repute she can hardly maintain to her dinner guests that she has nothing to wear. Popping in quick succession both into and out of Erte-style finery, Bo Peep frillery, Annie Oakley fringery, and a series of overstated outfits suitable for hookers from every post-Roman era save the Elizabethan, Dinah is a dithering wreck. Leonard’s entirely accurate reassurances that she looks fabulous in pretty much everything fall on deaf ears. She’s wired. He’s distracted. They’re a mess.
And that’s before the doorbell rings. Once new neighbors Clio (Kathryn Kelley) and Tate (John Lescault) arrive, looking prosperous and sounding as if they’d rather be just about anywhere else (even in the hurricane that keeps blowing the door open), the hosts’ insecurities shift into overdrive. Dinah, still shifting outfits every five minutes or so, turns out to be preparing a Thanksgiving feast (the holiday is still weeks away) because turkey with all the fixins is the only thing she knows how to cook. And Leonard’s efforts to keep a neighborly conversation going all seem to elicit broad hints of marital stress (“Clio’s an actress…onstage and off”) or nursery rhymes. Tate, it turns out, edits children’s stories for a living and regards a heartily uttered “diddle diddle dumpling” as a perfectly reasonable conversational gambit.
Enter Parker (Stephen F. Schmidt), a charismatic college buddy whose movie career long ago dwarfed Leonard’s modest stage successes, and whose onetime flirtation with Dinah is still causing friction in this shrub-infested home, and there can be little doubt that all hell will break loose in Act 2. And it does, even though by that time Dinah has everyone dressed for Chekhov and sitting decorously around a stagewide table covered with lace.
Olcott’s staging is lickety-split enough to remind Round House regulars that he’s the guy who mounted that astonishing production of All in the Timing a couple of seasons ago. The director has a gift for making oddness appear natural and normality weird, and is blessed here with actors who share his sensibilities. Lescault’s staid, sober nursery-rhyme recitations are a particular hoot, while Hebert deftly turns Leonard’s frantic insecurity comic without making light of the character’s underlying desperation. Kelley and Beard are delightful as two supremely scattered, keep-the-peace-at-any-price wives who’ve always been able to calm their husbands but are clearly at the end of their tethers. And if Schmidt is less manic than the others, that’s mostly because the Hollywood interloper he’s playing is more catalyst than character.
While all these folks have epiphanies of sorts by the end of the evening, the play they’re serving doesn’t really go anywhere. The final scene has the whole house swirling in circles as if caught in a tornado, and that’s a pretty apt representation of what patrons will be feeling as two hours of potential calamities get resolved in a feel-good ending calculated to send everyone home in holiday spirits.
In fairness, Howe does seem to have something more reckless and epic in mind than she’s managed to put on the page—or at any rate, than Round House has managed to put on the stage. A few lines (“500 years later and you still take my breath away”) hint that the characters are more iconic than this production lets on, and that all those costumes from different eras (the work of a dozen area designers coordinated hilariously by Rosemary Pardee) might be made into something more than mere sight gags.
Instead, the production has taken a spooky, epoch-evoking line in the second act—”there’s a randomness at large”—and run with it, mostly to excellent effect. The line echoes in your head long after the lights fade. Profound it’s not, but then neither is anything else about having a midlife crisis, so perhaps that’s as it should be.