Review: STAND UP IF YOU'RE HERE TONIGHT Takes Humorous, Moving Look At the Need For Community

Production runs through March 23 at the Huntington Theatre

By: Feb. 01, 2024
Review: STAND UP IF YOU'RE HERE TONIGHT Takes Humorous, Moving Look At the Need For Community

If the new world order of the post-pandemic – working from home, continued public mask wearing, the ongoing fear of Covid 19 – has left you with lingering feelings of loneliness and isolation, you’re not alone after all.

Indeed, in “Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight” – being given an unforgettable production at the Huntington Theatre through March 23 – playwright John Kolvenbach introduces us to a character known only as “Man.” Played with compelling, heart-wrenching authenticity by actor Jim Ortlieb, “Man” struggles with his need for human connection, the societal anonymity of middle age, and other factors weighing on him.

Insightfully directed by Kolvenbach, and being presented in the Huntington’s new 150-seat Maso Space, the action begins the moment Ortlieb – a gifted performer with significant Broadway and television credits – enters.

“You’ve tried everything,” he tells his audience. “Yoga. Acupuncture. Therapy. You juiced, you cleansed, you journaled, you quit smoking, you volunteered, you married, you divorced, you tried monogamy. You ate only RINDS for three days and nights. You reached out, you looked within. You have tried. And yet here you are.”

As he explains, the only real rule is “Stay Here,” a thematic request that resounds through the piece, reinforced early on with a laugh-out-loud litany of what getting to the show involved for some.

“The train smelled of digestion. The babysitter was drunk, but you left your three-year old with her anyway. You left the TV behind,” says Man, before laying out some ground rules. “Sit there. Use the bathroom. Look at the lights. Cross your arms and think what else you could be doing.”

Written during the early days of the pandemic, Kolvenbach has created a richly humorous, even profound look at life during Covid that, in the hands of Ortlieb, becomes a communal experience for theatergoers and an opportunity for self-reflection as we recalibrate. The words “pandemic” and “Covid-19” are not found in this work, though – perhaps because they are just the most recent reasons that people have felt disconnected.

Several times throughout the play, the “Man” appears to be speaking to his mother in the audience, seeking her approval as he likely always has. Anyone who’s lost a mother, a father, or someone central to their life, and simply can’t let go of that individual, will recognize the quiet ache in his voice and the haunted expression on his face.

The play – which had its world premiere at Wellfleet’s Harbor Stage Company three years ago, and has since enjoyed sold-out runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris, and Racine, Wisconsin – comes to Boston in first-rate form. The acting and direction are fine-tuned and complemented by Kristine Holmes’ scenic design with the clutter of a long life bringing to mind how some of us rely on the past to sustain ourselves in an uncertain future.

As the Harry Nilsson song says, however, “You Gotta Get Up, You Gotta Get Out,” because you don’t want to miss “Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight.” It will make you laugh, think, and have hope that a full re-entry into the world will be worth the effort.

Photo caption: Jim Ortlieb in a scene from “Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight.” Photo by Nile Hawver.