BWW Review: 4000 Days Loses Track of Time at the Fulton
It's the oldest story in the book. Your mother hates your date/partner/spouse. What happens when you have partial retrograde amnesia that wipes out your memories of your relationship, among other things, while your mother's right there to give you her version of your past? Peter Quilter's 4000 DAYS addresses that particular nightmare with a great deal more humor than might be anticipated.
4000 DAYS, which had original readings at the Fulton Theatre before launching in London's West End, is making its US premiere at the Fulton, directed by Kate Galvin. Written for a cast of three, it's spare, and it's amazingly compressed, yet it's dramatic without being frightening. Perhaps it's a tad too tame. Mama doesn't hate son's boyfriend because he's gay, but because he's dull. Boyfriend is... dull. Son is wishing he remembered anything of the past ten years. Mama inspires him to paint again. Art helps him remember his relationship with his partner. There's a chance the two of them could start again in a less boring fashion.
That's really rather sweet, but where's the real conflict? The arguments are barely arguments, more civilized than even the British should be, perhaps. Does Mama evilly attempt to persuade her son that the relationship never existed, that the man in the room with them is an interloper trying to make trouble for her amnesiac child? No. If drama is heightened reality, the story should be more fraught. There's no feeling of swords clashing in this writing, no metaphorical armed conflict, just the statement that her son was more interesting and a real artist before he fell in with Mr. Dull, and that son needs to become an interesting artist again.
The best moments of the script, of which there are too few, are the son, Michael's, reclaiming of his art and his determination to, and performance of, painting a mural on one of the hospital room walls while he's there - a masterpiece of sorts in its idea, if not execution (we never see or get any real detail of the artwork), that the hospital will have painted over when he leaves. Is there a tense struggle to preserve this art for posterity (or at least until the hospital remodels once more)? Well, no. The dramatic heights a story of this sort could reach simply aren't present. It's not the fault of Galvin, a very talented director, or of the outstanding cast working with this material; it's that Quilter's play is calmer than a Barbara Pym novel of politely repressEd English emotion and non-action. And while that works well enough in Pym's novels, which are about frightfully repressed and stiff-lipped post-war Brits finding comfort in tea and flower arranging and chats with the vicar, it's not enough for three people in a modern English hospital room, in front of an audience.
Michael, the former-artist turned insurance sales type (the most dreaded dullness of all, certainly) is portrayed by Jeffrey Coon, formerly at the Fulton in SWEENEY TODD among other shows. He's got a nice handle on depicting slow memory regrowth, as well as with burgeoning artistic development, and he has some nice chemistry with Jane Ridley, playing Carol, Michael's mother, and keeping that suitably "mother, I'm a grown adult" tense against his anxiety for actual assistance from his mother. James Logan Hall plays Paul, the dry-as-dust buT Loving partner who's anxious to find his place again in Michael's life. Hall is at his best, other than sparring (alas, not fully jousting) with Carol, when he's leaping out of his skin trying to trigger Michael's memories with photographs, stacks of newspapers, and the like. He recognizes his own dullness, fortuitously: "A lot of people in marketing are single. We don't know how to sell ourselves." Hall is a particularly fine performer, and great fun to watch. So is Coon, once Michael is finally out of bed and painting, but that takes a while.
It's Jane Ridley, last seen at the Fulton in AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY, however, who owns the show, so perfect is she as Carol, Michael's determined mother. One might like to peg her as malevolent. She's certainly controlling. Unfortunately, she means well, and truly does believe she has her son's best interests at heart. Ridley makes her sweet with plenty of tartness and a bitter edge, much like a good grapefruit soda. And that's truly how Carol is. If only Carol's mean streak weren't so clearly in self defense or Michael's perceived defense; if only she weren't quite so perfectly redeeming. Not that mothers should be evil, but true dramatic tension requires more than three people conflicting mildly over different points of view about what's best for one of them medically. The dramatic point of the production is when Michael begins to regain his memories of Paul, but it feels as if there should be more dramatic tension on one or both sides of that moment.
4000 DAYS is by no means a bad show. It's also not a perfect one, but this production is well-directed and spectacularly acted. It's the acting itself that generates any feeling of real tension between Paul and Carol, and Hall and Ridley have no problem striking many of the sparks that are missing from the script.
At the Fulton in Lancaster through June 4. Visit thefulton.org for tickets and information.