BWW Reviews: PARTNERS Captures Confusion of Youth at Humana Festival
To the older crowd that constituted the majority of the audience in the Bingham Theatre for a Thursday night performance of "Partners" - people in their mature years, people who have seen trials and triumphs, people with a lot of footnotes to the definition of who they are - the show struck a lot of comedic notes.
To, at least, a young professional coming into his own (one hopes) and his similarly situated companion? This was a horror story.
Hearing the older demographic laugh at these characters - abstractly concerned about the world's problems while feinting from their own, wanting unconditional love on their own terms, craving opportunity and either feeling guilt over it or weaponizing it - caused both my date and I to ask: "Is this how they see our us?"
It's a hard point to argue against. "Partners" is a strikingly vivid snapshot of a generation that doesn't know what to do with itself.
The play opens on a couple, Clare and Paul, celebrating the legalization of gay marriage in New York with their gay friends Ezra and Brady. (References to the specific time and place very much date the play, on top of making some jokes and references, i.e., "I'm not Herman Cain," that come off as ham-handed two years later.)
Clare and Paul are champions of abstract ideas, very much 30-somethings who attach themselves to noble crusades while allowing their personal problems to simmer and, by the climax, explode. Ezra is less interested in marrying Brady and more insistent that Clare pulls her weight to get their business partnership (a food truck) on the fast track. When Clare receives an unexpected windfall, all these relationships are drastically upended.
On paper, the character dynamics here are well-drawn and quite engaging to observe. Ezra is brash and boisterous, believing those characteristics are what he will need to carry him to success. Clare has true talent but is prone to self-sabotage, even self-harm. In their own words, Clare thinks Ezra doesn't listen, while Ezra thinks Clare doesn't speak loud enough.
Paul and Brady are respectively grounding agents for their partners - and, as such, bear the weight of responsibility which has slowly become a cage for both. When a major confrontation endangers Ezra and seriously wounds the couples' friendship, both Paul and Brady react in ways that reveal the extent to which their sacrifices for their relationships have decidedly not improved them as people. I reacted to subsequent scenes featuring choices they make the way horror movie fans react when the unsuspecting future victim goes out to investigate the strange noise alone: "What are you doing!?!"
Bluntly put: these characters are flatly unlikeable, practically calibrated to be so. Watching them, you have to choose between crying or laughing to avoid crying. Some of the roads Fortenberry takes them down almost feel contrived, but very accurately capture both the younger set's revolutionary movement against stodgy old morals and their woeful lack of deep thought about the consequences of that revolution. It's staggering how aptly this play captures the notion of how open the world is to this generation, and how utterly unprepared for it they feel. When a decision by Clare robs Paul of his chance at to grad school, she defensively asks him what he would have studied. His reply: "I don't know. But just thinking about it made me feel so good."
The four actors charged with these highly conflicted roles do a commendable job in keeping all judgment and commentary they could apply to them. They simple play them through to their bitter, bitter ends. Annie Purcell's Clare is to-a-T the kind of person whose sweet, retiring and well-meaning exterior hides years of self-pity and terror. Kasey Mahaffy seems to have been encouraged to take Ezra in the direction of a sitcom-worthy gay friend, but plays Ezra's scenes of depth and conviction very well.
David Ross does a quite good work playing the grounded and responsible Paul, slowly revealing the bitter core of the character and letting the audience decide for themselves how justified he is. LeRoy McClain's Brady is possibly the one character the audience could latch onto, which makes the big reveal of his personal hang-up possibly the most upsetting.
Bravo to Fortenberry and director Lila Neugebauer for putting all the warts on display as they mine the complexities, real, tragic and hilarious, of a generation trying desperately to figure out exactly what adulthood looks like.
"Partners" runs through April 6. For tickets, show times and more information, go towww.actorstheatre.org.