AT LONG LAST LEO
at the Theatre Building
at Urbus Orbis
Probably the most important character in Mark Stein's At Long Last Leo, being produced by Bailiwick Repertory, is a book. Or rather a manifesto, 600 or so pages on how to change the way we live and save the world. It's been written by Leo Beagle, a dreamy, self-obsessed former grad student who would like to be the next Moses but can't manage to communicate with his family in his own backyard.
Though we never get to hear much of what's in Leo's tome, and most of the play's characters don't ever read it, it has an undeniable effect on all who come into contact with it, as they guess what might be contained inside. Leo's sister Sheila, the bitter victim of a premature mid-life crisis, uses her perception of his theories to decide that she ought to take her young son and move to Seattle. Leo's dad seems to confuse his son Leo Beagle with Leo Buscaglia, and uses something Leo writes about "everything connects" to declare that he's having an affair. Leo's mom sees the futility of her son's efforts and relapses into a state of depression, while Leo's old neighbor Gloria seizes on his optimism and tries to consummate the crush she's had on him for the past 15 years.
As the play progresses, Leo's character becomes less a comic hero and more a tragic symbol for the 20-something generation, trying desperately to change a planet hurtling way beyond control. Optimism gives way to disillusionment when Leo discovers that his book can't cure his mom's depression or really change the way that anybody thinks. And even though the end of the play holds out hope for the future, we're left with the impression that the book is a 600-page millstone around Leo's neck. His irrepressible desire to change things and make a difference both keeps him going and paralyzes him. He will always have hope, and yet he'll never realize his lofty expectations.
Stein's comedy may not change the world, but at least it describes the life of someone who wants to. Leo is a wonderful character, a rich, thoroughly believable creation whose energy pulsates through the script. And though Stein's world seems to revolve around Leo, he has also created an excellent supporting cast, full of well-developed characters whose interactions smack of reality. The dialogue is crisp, funny, and moving, and for the most part the discussions be- tween characters are intelligent and thought-provoking.
About the last 15 or 20 minutes of the play get a little stale, though. On her way to the shrink, Leo's mom has to utter some trite homespun wisdom. And at the play's close, when we finally get to hear some of Leo's book, it's a disappointment, sounding a lot more like new-age claptrap than a prescription for curing the ills of the world. But maybe that's the point. Like Leo's dream of changing the planet, our image of Leo's book can never match the reality.
Under Judy O'Malley's direction, Bailiwick's produced a winner. The cast is uniformly strong. John Hines as Leo is gratingly lovable, a bundle of energy. Wayne Brown is a thoroughly believable suburban dad, always smiling to conceal the pain. Molly Reynolds gives Leo's sister Sheila a wonderful combination of toughness and vulnerability, and Kim Werkman does an excellent comic turn as Leo's moonstruck childhood crush, Gloria. Marjorie Synakiewicz in the thankless role of the depressive mother comes through with a realistic, sympathetic portrayal.
Andy Roski's No Fury is a play about a writer, too. Currently appearing at Urbus Orbis in a DemonLife production, Roski's play concerns Morgan Marshfield, a down-on-his-luck dishwasher who dreams of finally completing his manuscript. As the play opens Morgan and his wife, Eve, have just returned from the funeral of Morgan's mother. As soon as Morgan and Eve arrive home, Eve hatches a plan to win an inheritance from Morgan's dead mom, who apparently came from a filthy-rich family. Morgan doesn't want to go find his mom's family, however; he wants to write his book.
The plot thickens when Morgan's friend Bob O'Donnell arrives on the scene, having just offed a chef at a Chinese restaurant with a stalk of bok choy. Bob and Eve try to convince Morgan to obtain his inheritance; he claims that his mother was a poor waitress and made up the story about a rich family. The improbabilities and plot twists mount until one is not sure who, if anybody, can be trusted.
There are flashes of brilliance in Roski's script. The fast-paced guy talk between Bob and Morgan is especially rich and funny. Roski also does a good job at showing how differently Morgan behaves around his wife and around another guy. Monologues here and there work quite well, especially a speech Eve gives about how she hates wearing thrift-shop clothing because she can feel the spirits of dead people in them.
But ultimately No Fury is unpolished and unsatisfying. The two male characters are well drawn and believable, but Eve is a completely flat creation. She appears to have no life whatsoever outside the script, seeming to exist only to ask the male characters questions. All of them behave implausibly at times. When Bob almost kills Morgan, everyone's reaction seems completely phony. The incessant references to "killing a Chink" are neither amusing nor clever.
Playwright Roski does a good job as Morgan, and Peter DeFaria is hilarious as Bobby. Caroline Cygan does what she can with the two-dimensional Eve. But ultimately one's left with the feeling that No Fury is a one-act that's been padded to two hours. One loses interest in the characters after a while, as Roski's makeshift plot spins out of control. Perhaps the playwright was striving for absurdity, but the play ends up just not making sense.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.