BWW Reviews: SCR Stages World Premiere of FIVE MILE LAKE, Ends 5/4
Some playwrights opt for characters that scream and huff their emotions at the top of their lungs to get their points across. Others, do it with subtler gestures, truncated speeches, and awkward silences, thereby letting its nuances tell its story (and, perhaps, requiring a little more work and patience on the part of its audience).
In the new play FIVE MILE LAKE---currently in the midst of its World Premiere at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory through May 4---author Rachel Bonds chose the latter route, populating her quiet, snail-paced drama with characters that speak in hushed tones and coded exchanges that seem to mask a lifetime's supply of jealousy, inner regrets, and frustrations.
It's certainly a valid, often intriguing way to go. I certainly prefer discovering the meat of a character via a combination of nuanced speeches, facial tics, and body language, without this person simply orating his or her entire raison d'être. But therein lies the play's risky machination---is being too subtle and expressing mostly just surface subtext enough to keep an audience invested and interested in what they're watching?
Perhaps. Sometimes setting up that kind of theatrical mood works for some plays, particularly in presenting deeper character development or even for allowing a build-up of anticipation of more exciting events still to come. But in FIVE MILE LAKE, that exciting event never really comes, and the journey we are taken on feels as though it just spins in perpetual motion. Thus, the whole thing feels a bit disappointing.
"I'm worried that this is all I get!" a character protests out loud near the end of the play. Me, too, dear. Me too.
While, sure, Bonds has a discernible knack for writing conversations that feel real and authentic, the play itself---like its characters---is populated with frustrated 20-somethings that seem to all be in flux. As such---with everyone pretty much holding back a bit---there is a difficultly in connecting with anyone in particular or feeling much empathy for anyone in particular---save, perhaps Jaime (played by the likable Nate Mooney) who is, quite possibly, the only person in the play we're meant to care about (partly by design and partly by process of elimination).
Curiously, the setting for FIVE MILE LAKE---and the arc it launches---seems comfortably familiar: a small, middle-of-nowhere town where some residents have chosen to either stay behind or leave for (supposedly) better lives in the big cities.
It's winter in this tiny burg surrounding a, yes, five-mile-long lake just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the affable boy-next-door Jamie and his pretty but perpetually perturbed colleague Mary (frequent SCR presence Rebecca Mozo) work in a cozy little café. The two have known each other since they were young(er), though both have different reasons for staying in the town they grew up in. And, uh, yeah, you can pretty much tell right off the bat which of the two are unhappy about it.
We soon learn that Jamie---reasonably content with his quiet small town life, while pining silently for Mary---has spent lots of his off-work hours happily fixing up and restoring his grandfather's lakeside home while caring for his aging, convalescing mother.
Mary, on the other hand, is obviously frustrated with her lot in life, resentfully pining for a better, more fulfilling existence miles away from the boring lake, the boring café, and this boring-ass town. Her one bright spot in her day---if it even counts---is her covert caring for a few stray cats that have squatted in the back of the coffee shop.
But, like Jamie with his mom, Mary, too, has some inescapable obligations: her older brother Danny (Brian Slaten), back from the war in Afghanistan, is living with her. The problem? Danny is a bit of a manic hothead, quite possibly a by-product of war-induced PTSD, and so Mary has now taken on the task of trying to protect the guy (and, in a way, protecting others from him). At this particular junction, Mary is hopeful for Danny's prospects at a new job.
Woe-Is-Me Mary, naturally, wears her frustration with life on her face, and Jamie---who's truly in love with her but is too timid to say it outright---does his best to cheer her up, even if it means bringing up inane, silly talk of the Winter Olympics that aired on TV the night before. Mary, focused on her brother and her own deferred ambitions, can't see past Jaime's dorky exterior.
So what can possibly wobble Jaime's good-natured attitude? Well, complications arrive when his successful, college-educated hipster brother Rufus (SCR vet Corey Brill) returns home for an awkward sudden visit, accompanied by his exotic, Brit-accented new girlfriend Peta (Nicole Shalhoub).Though Jaime tries his best to not seem outwardly jealous of his more worldly, sophisticated brother, we soon learn that---surprise---things are never greener on the other side as most people assume. But Rufus' return also sparks an unexpected revelation: Mary seems to have snapped out of her funk, at least temporarily. Actually, it shouldn't be a surprise since we also find out that Mary herself pined for the swoon-worthy superstar Rufus back in high school.
A love triangle that pits brothers against each other? Sounds promising. (Does something emerge from this? Well, only snark).
Directed by Daniella Topol, FIVE MILE LAKE, as presented in this world premiere production, feels like a very promising first draft with undeniable potential. But much like its characters, the play displays an accountable lack of both forward momentum and a greater sense of urgency (even a "suicide attempt" later in the play feels a bit forced and anti-climactic).
As the characters revel in the past and feel frustrated about the present, they feel stuck in a constantly spinning spiral of regret---which is really no fun for an audience either, especially when there are hardly any moments of revelry or joy. It doesn't help matters that every character in the play seems to speak in incomplete riddles, encrypted with so much subtlety and masked exchanges that is, sure, both creatively admirable and, man, downright off-putting at times. Thank goodness every actor---particularly Brill, Mozo and Mooney---showcased some great acting work despite the material's shortcomings.
Don't get me wrong... plenty of things do transpire during the play's intermission-less hour and 45-minute running time. But yet because the play pretty much stays on an even keel with very little traversing into highs or lows, it still felt like nothing really happened. Everyone stayed the same, even after all that whining. Additionally, even the most potentially volatile character, Danny, barely registered any stage time!
But, truly, you know the play needs a bit more finessing when the most exciting thing to happen on the stage---that jolted everyone up---is when a lawn chair broke under Brill's weight when the actor sat on it during a drunken conversation with Mooney early in their characters' reunion scene (this was at the Saturday evening performance of opening weekend). Like the pro that he is, Brill---still very much in character and without skipping a beat---brilliantly covered up the unplanned prop mishap, reacting to it as his character would have at the situation.
It was such a well-orchestrated, live-theater moment that meshed well with the scene that many of us in the audience were still debating in the lobby after the play ended on whether or not it was a scripted bit.
Perhaps that's exactly what this play needs---a bit more theatrical jolts.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR. From top: Mary (Rebecca Mozo) exchanges small talk with co-worker Jaime (Nate Mooney); Rufus (Corey Brill) reminisces with his brother Jaime (Mooney) about the glory days; Rufus (Brill) shares a tender moment with his girlfriend Peta (Nicole Shalhoub).
Performances of the world premiere of FIVE MILE LAKE continue at South Coast Repertory through May 4, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.