By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Longtime patrons already know that the Undermain Theatre can mix a mean theatrical drink--comedy and drama shaken together into one potent cocktail, served up on some treacherous rocks. Rarely has the house recipe been more potent when you gulp it--and rarely have the effects felt more disappointing, when the buzz is yanked away from you at the end of the evening--than in the Undermain's latest production, The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite.
You can't help but think in alcohol metaphors, maybe because the three most prominent characters--a trio of unemployed Canadian loggers who definitely spend too much time together--swill beer and whiskey with compensatory vigor. They snort, they swear, they occasionally even resort to real violence within their ranks as part of an ongoing campaign of self-assurance. With their lolling heads slumped together in febrile barroom conversation, these are instinctive galoots who mourn women's faithlessness, employment's unpredictability, and their own occasional mutual betrayals. Although there's an occasional homoerotic undertone to be detected in their touching mutual dependency, these guys are more homosocial than homosexual--they derive intense, elementary satisfaction from hearing one another repeat the same beer-slurred bromide about the woes of job insecurity and elusive women.
As played with vertiginous comic machismo by Bruce DuBose (Raymond), Tom Lenaghen (Junior), and Bob Erwin (Merle), the three friends play out some intriguing masculine politics in the first act of Quincy Long's sometimes riotous two-act comedy. DuBose plays the alpha male, marking his territories from redwood to redwood and inviting his buddies to follow his path. They follow more out of a need to belong than real respect, which probably chafes at Raymond. He especially likes to harass Junior, who's easily cowed, but carries one card that'll always trump Raymond's braggadocio--he has a woman in his life who apparently cares about him.
This aimless trio accepts a holy mission one night in a bar when they encounter a barely conscious stranger (played by Anthony L. Ramirez, in a practically wordless but entrancing feat of physical concentration) who's drunker than a poet on payday. After fecklessly using the poor man for their own amusement, they discover a note inside his hat that suggests his woman has left him for "a man with big arms." Their righteous journey to correct this shameless cuckolding lands them in a convent, where they confront a frightened mother superior (Kateri Cale) and the stranger's alleged betrayer (a very funny Lisa Lee Schmidt), who has a problem deciding between two men in her life.
Viewers who are expecting a lighthearted romp a la A Por Quinley Christmas, last yuletide's Quincy Long hit from the Undermain, probably won't be disappointed. But they will be carried through a light hailstorm of Christ metaphors and religious images, which are not dwelled upon in director Katherine Owens' brisk staging. More often than not, Long, Owens, and her fleet-footed cast manage to integrate bawdy, buoyant comedy with the play's twin themes: Women sometimes idealize men into savior figures, then expect them to follow through, while men often martyr each other in a contest to achieve the omnipotent masculinity that the love of a good woman cannot bring them.
Quincy Long manages to combine this sexual commentary with religious conceits quite smoothly until the show's finale, when a sudden downshift from raucous comedy to somber redemption to sappy sentiment left me feeling stranded. This is partly the fault of the talented actors, especially Lisa Lee Schmidt and Anthony L. Ramirez, whose poignant readings of their characters involve the audience so much, we walk right up to the threshold of climax full of laughter and unexpected sadness, then have the door slammed in our faces by an emotionally tidy finale. It's also partly the fault of the original score, with lyrics by Long and music by Dallas composer George Gagliardi. The songs strewn throughout the show are really more punctuations, character commentaries, or brief excuses for a laugh than fully fleshed-out tunes. This worked fine for me (long and complete musical numbers would have weighed the show down with theatrical bombast), until Schmidt (through no fault of her own) ended the second act's emotional high point at the back of the stage, singing a mournful ditty whose sentiments felt saccharine compared to the weird but gratifying convolution of feelings the scene had instilled. The show led me all over the map into some unexpected crevices and corners, and then, abruptly, lay down and fell into a cozy sleep before my eyes.
Still, The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite is too full of great lines and wonderful performances to have its memory sullied by a false final note. The Undermain seems a perfect ensemble to channel New York playwright Quincy Long's sensibility, a distinctively playful comic pathos that refreshes. In a medium in which playwrights often turn their characters into hapless floppy dolls, then stick pins in them to take revenge on a cruel and capricious world, Long isn't afraid to snuggle up to his people during the long, lonely nights of their saga. He's not quite an optimist, but he does seem to believe that as long as human beings are headed in some sort of direction--however misguided or harmful it may be--that means, at least, there's always a chance we could meander into salvation.