San Diego Theater Review: AT THE OLD PLACE (La Jolla Playhouse)

by Tony Frankel on July 18, 2017

in Theater-Regional

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OUT OF PLACE

Well, that was pointless. Entertaining to a point, but pointless.

I had a feeling about two minutes into At the Old Place that something was wrong dramatically. A woman shows up to a run-down house in rural Raleigh, Virginia, and looks around with an unexpressive, almost tired, face, walks over to a “For Sale” sign, pulls it out of the ground, and goes up a small set of porch stairs towards the front door, which is next to an overflowing mailbox from which letters spill to the ground. She ignores the mail, pulls her small suitcase behind her and shuts the door.

Blackout.

This is how one starts a movie, not a play.

And sure enough, Rachel Bond’s 85-minute one-act ends up feeling like episode number whatever of a 24-episode TV show. Some watchable scenes occur, and then a blackout comes just when the arc needs to grow. Consistently interrupting any impetus, Bond, as with most of her contemporaries, seems more interested in the moment than the totality of her play (and there are a few terrific moments). The message here seems to be “Home is Where the Heart Is” (and if there isn’t already, wouldn’t that be a great name for an episodic show?). But this is theater, so we don’t get to see what happens next week, and leaving the tale up in the air doesn’t qualify as interesting playwriting unless its for a reason, such as Theatre of the Absurd.

Upon her mother’s passing, Angie (a sensitive Heidi Armbruster) a middle-aged professor of poetry in a troubled marriage with a boyfriend on the side, returns to her childhood home to think things over and drink. She discovers two young strangers chatting and carousing on her lawn. Friends and co-workers at an electronics box store, Will (Marcel Spears, quietly expressive but internally aflame)—a sensitive black gay man with an artist’s soul—and Jolene (dynamic Brenna Coates)—combative, funny, irreverent, troubled, foul-mouthed, poor, white, sad, and a heavy drinker—become an unlikely support system for Angie—and she for them, especially Will, with whom she feels kinship.

Yes, when a central character’s life is transformed by others, it makes for great drama–but we don’t get transformation, just the possibility. That’s why I keep arguing for a second and even third act in the theater: I can’t figure out why we took this journey.

What Bonds does remarkably well in this world premiere is capture the twenty-something patois of today’s generation, and as delivered by Spears and Coates the dialogue positively crackles; but then it sputters, just like a cheap sparkler: bright, short, and underwhelming once it’s out. Referencing celebrities and brands occurs with alarming frequency, also helping to make the dialogue instantly disposable–and some of the best lines come from well-known poets: Both Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” are spoken in their entirety; why not add Shakespeare as well to make some more meaningful points? (The show’s title comes from an O’Hara poem about gay rights.)

And when Angie’s boyfriend shows up (Benim Foster, completely wasted in a one-dimensional part), interrupting an exciting drinking game in progress, the couple chats almost leisurely about why she left and what he wants; nothing happens to make us care; any weight the play has had up to this point deflates, and the energy never picks up through the end. In order to be a play one day when it grows up, this slice-of-life needs less poets and more twists, more revelations, more story, and more characters (why didn’t we meet the brother who is selling the house?).

Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda is clearly an actor’s director, but he created a thrust stage at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum and then staged the play proscenium-style, with actors sitting at a small white cast-iron table for huge stretches of time. He then uses complete naturalism for a play that screams to be theatricalized for resonance: Lauren Halpern’s gigantic uber-representational set, opulently lit by Lap Chi Chu to mark the passage of time, is astounding: A gravel driveway that crunches loudly when people approach; a room inside the front door complete with fireplace; plenty of shrubbery looking peaked from lack of attention (including a large leafless magnolia tree); grass on a huge playing area in front of the house; and more. Yet rarely is any of this used. No one gets up on the dilapidated roof, nothing happens inside the house, there’s no picnic on the ground, it’s just expensive decoration.

For decades, people in the theater world have claimed that plays are becoming shorter because the audience’s attention span is decreasing. Bull. I just think that it’s cheaper to produce, and that playwrights are running out of things to say. Since Bond’s protagonist realizes she has to move on to something new, hopefully so will Bond. I look forward to a style of playwrighting less traveled.

photos by Jim Carmody

At the Old Place
La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum
2910 La Jolla Village Dr in La Jolla
Tues and Wed at 7:30; Thurs and Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on July 31, 2017
for tickets, call 858.550.1010 or visit La Jolla Playhouse

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt M. July 21, 2017 at 1:34 am

I agree with every point in your review. And yes, the play is pointless.

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