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Victory Gardens Theater

By Jack Helbig

I suppose everyone who ever felt geeky in high school has fantasized about getting even, perhaps by becoming a big star and returning in a cloud of glory with a big car and a beautiful wife and a wallet full of cash. Jeffrey Sweet's new play, receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens, begins with such a premise: Oliver, nationally famous and financially set for life because of his Sneak Previews-like TV show, goes back to his pathetic hometown in Ohio for his 25th high school reunion.

Sweet's protagonist is too repressed, guarded, and just plain civilized to show off. But Oliver's pride emerges in subtle ways, as he denies a little too strongly that he's friends with any of the stars he covers yet self-righteously corrects a mispronunciation of Kim Basinger's name.

Not that anyone would have to work very hard to feel superior to the gang Oliver left behind. Ted, the bully who made Oliver's teen years hell, has been unemployed, apparently for years, ever since the town plant closed. Iris, the woman who wouldn't give Oliver the time of day in high school, has become a lonely single mom with a wild teenage daughter, a grandchild, and a nothing job waitressing at the local diner.

The problem is that, having summoned up this former loser's daydream, Sweet seems unsure of the story he wants to tell, how to tell it, and even who the sympathetic characters are. It's clear by the end of the play that Sweet thinks Ted is an asshole: once a bully, always a bully. But before Ted confirms that fact in a few brutal moments near the end, Sweet gives us plenty of evidence to the contrary: we see Ted's troubled, devoted wife, discover that there's a battle between stoicism and self-pity behind everything he says, and come to understand why he's so depressed (no job, no future, no hope).

Sweet's attitude toward Oliver is similarly ambivalent. At least in the first part of the play, it seems that Oliver is meant to be the still point around which the story revolves, the sane, neutral, unflappable outsider who can see more clearly than the locals just how crazy everyone has become. But the moment that Oliver's so-called friends threaten his marriage--and later his life--his emotionally distant demeanor begins to seem more a symptom of mental illness than a sign of health. Instead of becoming angry when Iris betrays him, he regresses into an infantile state, clutching her tight, laying his head on her stomach, and begging her in the most pathetic voice to run off with him to New York. Suddenly Oliver seems like the lowest worm in the world, someone who maybe deserved the beatings Ted gave him in his formative years.

So which is the real Oliver, the success or the worm? Which is the real Ted, the asshole or the wounded human being? Sweet gives us too much contradictory information to decide.

Even the play's title reflects Sweet's ambivalence toward his characters. We're never sure whether he agrees that his Middle American characters are mere flyovers--those unimportant people on the ground between the two coasts--or whether he's using the moniker ironically and siding with the locals, who are more than that.

Sweet's storytelling is similarly ambivalent, inconsistent and self-negating. The play begins with a long, luxuriously slow, carefully crafted conversation before the reunion between Oliver and Ted (and later Iris and Lianne, Ted's wife) that lays out with remarkable finesse all the dynamics of their relationships--both then and now. This extended scene, taking up almost two-thirds of the play, lulls us into thinking we're watching a dry but charged comedy about high school and the alarming fact that we remain forever the same people we were at 18.

But then Sweet abruptly changes the tone and style, smashing the compelling reality he, director Dennis Zacek, and the all-star cast have so carefully constructed, introducing a none too subtle melodramatic twist: Ted and Iris try to blackmail Oliver with some pictures of him and Iris flagrante delicto. Their plan backfires, however, and the tone of the play changes yet again, this time reaching an unsettling midway point between sophisticated comedy and noirish thriller. Unfortunately, the two genres cancel each other out.

Maybe a skilled playwright could have woven the many moods of this play into a single tapestry. You'd hope that the author of the popular writing manual The Dramatist's Toolkit (now in its fifth edition) and the leader of countless playwriting workshops across the country could have written himself out of this trap. But Sweet couldn't. Or at least he didn't here.

Zacek's cast do their damndest to make the play seem consistent. In particular William Petersen's performance as Ted is well crafted, combining seductive charm with an ever present barely suppressed rage: when Ted strikes out at Oliver in the second act, we're only surprised it didn't happen sooner. Likewise Marc Vann gives a subtle, graceful, understated performance as Oliver, his body language speaking volumes about this repressed character. Amy Morton as Iris and Linda Reiter as Lianne shine less often than the guys, through no fault of their own; both their roles are sadly underwritten, with the former high school slut showing little more depth and range than the neurotic housewife.

The problem Morton and Reiter face--how to make weak roles seem strong--is simply more acute for them than it is for Petersen and Vann. Sadly, the finest cast in the world can't fix a play so flawed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): still by Liz Lauren.

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