BWW Review: South Coast Repertory Presents Engaging World Premiere Play CURVE OF DEPARTURE
Life, as most of us know it, involves a series of events that then forces us to make choices. Some choices are benign and easily reached, while others are carefully agonized over because they could potentially have long-lasting ramifications, that can be either good or bad. There are choices that either keep us safe, comfortable, and less likely to be in harm's way or ones that are riskier and involve some level of sacrifice for ourselves, but with a higher yield of reward or happiness for another person when all is said and done.
In Rachel Bonds' beautifully-acted and cleverly written new play CURVE OF DEPARTURE---now finishing up its too-brief World Premiere run at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through October 15---characters are confronted with unexpected events that forces them to make such choices for themselves that affect not only their own lives but the lives of those intimately tethered to theirs. As they each grapple with potentially life-altering decisions, we as audience members---in the span of 80 mesmerizing, uninterrupted minutes---grow to care about these fictional (but wonderfully realistic) people and, therefore, empathize and feel their struggle alongside them as they try to make reasonable pro-and-con arguments. We become so invested in what each person is dealing with that we're all hoping that ultimately every single one of them will end up satisfied and, at least, a little bit content with their respective decisions no matter which path(s) they choose to follow.
Right from its purposely ambiguous beginning all the way to its bittersweet but ultimately hopeful, smile-inducing ending, Bonds paints vibrant portraits of characters that feel like real, authentic people you have met in real life---people that you can't help but root for and care about just for being themselves and for having the wherewithal to make tough choices that many of us may find just as difficult (if not more) to confront.
The added bonus? CURVE OF DEPARTURE showcases a family dynamic that feels warmly familiar, yet still refreshingly unique. And, yes, this family, too, has its fair share of scandals and secrets all awaiting to be unearthed---which make them all the more interesting.
When the play opens, we first meet cantankerous Rudy (the very funny Allan Miller) and the kind, even-tempered Linda (the luminous Kim Staunton) who are inside a modest double-bed hotel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rudy---ailing from the aches, pains, and irrational outbursts that come with advanced age---is in bed complaining at the TV (in a way most of us expect our elderly ornery grandparents to), while Linda is off to one side peacefully ironing clothes while humoring Rudy's colorful comments and keeping a close watch on his comfort level.
Based on their initial conversation and general rapport, it's not difficult to assume that they are a couple that have been married for decades.
But... Surprise! They're actually not married to each other!
Although you can certainly feel an affection between them---and even witness the kind of attentive, and, um, thorough nurse-like care-taking typical of longtime married couples---it turns out that the two of them share a different kind of family bond: Linda used to be married to Rudy's son, Cyrus. A long, long time ago, sometime during their marriage, Cyrus had decided to simply abandon her and their young son behind and start a new life with a new family, which eventually brought him here to Santa Fe. As a result, Cyrus' departure not only deprived Linda of a husband and their son of a father, it also deprived Rudy from a continued relationship with his own son.
"He's a schmuck!" Rudy exclaims with bitterness, referring to his son Cyrus.
Despite the separation (and, later divorce), Linda has remained very close with her former father-in-law, which in turn enables Rudy---who loves Linda like a real daughter---to form a genuinely loving relationship with Linda's child with Cyrus. With Rudy all alone and a widower, Linda has selflessly tasked herself to care for and attend to Rudy's every need, particularly now with his health and cognizance in rapid decline.
"I'm just losing my mind, that's all," Rudy explains nonchalantly to a worried Linda, with a hint of bubbling sadness.
So why are these two in a hotel room in Santa Fe? Well, they're in town, strangely enough, to attend Cyrus' funeral the following morning. Days before, Cyrus suffered a fatal heart attack. Suffice it to say, it has been many years since anyone from Cyrus' "abandoned" family has had any kind of contact or relationship with him.
Wracked with mixed feelings of having to bid goodbye to an ex-husband who said his much ruder goodbyes so many years before, Linda nonetheless takes the higher road and has arranged for the single hotel room in Santa Fe to shelter not only herself and Rudy for the night, but also her now grown-up son, Felix (the terrifically animated Larry Powell) as well as his new boyfriend Jackson (Christian Barillas) who came along for the trip. Linda feels that it is important that both Cyrus' father Rudy and Cyrus' son Felix get some kind of closure in attending the funeral, even though both men have expressed a vehement disinterest in being here.
But the reunion also gives everyone a chance to get to know each other more. Rudy and Linda are naturally curious about Felix's new boyfriend, whom they've met briefly before but still know little about except for being a part-time waiter and having some tattoos that Rudy assumes is a sign that he's a little questionable. Like any mom, Linda is a bit more cautiously optimistic, willing to get to know the man that her son loves, even though inside she is worried about Felix---a successful, hard-working software developer---being the sole breadwinner in their relationship.
When Felix and his boyfriend finally arrive, exasperated from a troubling travel day from L.A., the reunion that transpires in such very tight quarters is slightly awkward but otherwise pleasant enough thanks to Linda's welcoming demeanor and Rudy's humor-filled storytelling and his pro-New York publicity speeches. Jackson, shyly cautious but still open and friendly, engages in talks with both Rudy and Linda that prove to be cordial, if a little walled-off as if he's protecting something. Felix, for his part, is a bit more anxious, knowing that his grandfather doesn't really have a filter when it comes to expressing himself, especially when his mind begins to either wander or go blank---which are symptoms of what we can only deduce to be the rapid onslaught of dementia. But Rudy clearly adores his grandson (and vice-versa) which we instantly see as the two partake in the kind of conversation shared by two family members who deeply care for one another.
Aside from the occasional awkward pause in conversation or the emergency bathroom trips required by Rudy, the little gathering in the hotel room is off to an okay-enough start.
And just like his grandfather, Felix is also quite reluctant to be at his father Cyrus' funeral, too---not only because he hates Cyrus for what he has done, but because there's also a bit of distracting drama happening back home in L.A. that he and Jackson are reluctant to speak openly about in front of mixed company. For her part, Linda is also keeping something from her son she'd rather not discuss at this particular moment, yet does her best to pry the truth out after witnessing a palpable tension between her son and her boyfriend.
With all four people essentially "trapped" in a small, confined space for the night, it's certainly challenging to keep things bottled up.
Filled to the brim with witty, urbane dialogue, emotionally-tinged exchanges, and touching relationship dynamics, CURVE OF DEPARTURE plays out like a really well-done pilot of a new family TV show that grabs you right away and leaves you thirsting for more episodes. Every character is so fully developed and their respective actors give them so much life and verve---whether in vocal inflection or even the subtlest of facial expression---that we as a rapt audience feel like we have gotten to know them, too, and therefore become so completely devoted to their well-being.
We all want the best for school teacher Linda and to see her happy. We all don't like seeing grandpa Rudy suffer. We all want Jackson to conquer his life-changing new curveball. And we all want Felix to keep an open mind and accept the challenges that comes with loving another person.
The idea of confining a small set of characters into a single hotel room set---here beautifully designed by Lauren Helpern and lit thoughtfully by Scott Zielinski---is certainly not a unique new device seen only in this play. But in this case, the setting doesn't feel simply as a means to an end (though it certainly aids the ease in which characters reveal themselves). As small as the room may be, characters still find a way to create their own areas and niches to have their important, revelatory heart-to-heart talks. Conversations feel organic and flow seamlessly just like in real life, and the dialogue sounds as natural as everyday exchanges should, creating a communal, relatable environment for the audience.
Under Mike Donahue's smart, keen direction, the play doesn't just lumber its way from one truth bombshell to another, but makes a point of creating safe spaces for characters to divulge plot-forwarding bits of information that gives audiences some breathing room to take in each with an open mind and heart, just as the characters on stage are allowed to have. While there are no real tangible "villains" to be found in the intersecting stories here---even dead guy Cyrus gets a pass somewhat---the idea of someone even thinking about taking the opposite road of doing something "selfless" is seen as a possible evil, selfish move in each characters' eyes... even though, truly, what it says is that these characters are just like us: human.
The play asks: is there really a choice between doing something rewarding for yourself or doing something selfless for someone else, but in the process sacrifice one's own happiness and well-being and thereby opening up the possibility for resentment and anger later? We watch, riveted, as this collection of human beings struggle to answer this question.
A uniquely specific yet completely relatable take on a multi-generational family---that beautifully illustrates what we do for people we consider to be family---CURVE OF DEPARTURE introduces the audience to four genuinely likable characters who share meaningful, heartfelt conversations free of artifice and trite pretensions that plague other small, argumentative plays. Each character has their own sets of strengths and vulnerabilities that are displayed distinctly thanks to this play's stellar ensemble. As Jackson, Barillas reveals an endearing, often heartbreaking vulnerability beneath an exterior of calm and staunchness, which is a terrific contrast from his frequent stage partner, the more outwardly passionate Powell, who proves himself to be a peerless master of the loaded facial expression. Even if Powell just mumbles a sound or throws a look across the room, you know exactly what he's feeling and articulating (so much so that I found myself chuckling a lot at Powell's many different versions of the side-eye). It is this remarkable, likable performance that allows the audience to understand his stance on certain feelings he has that most people may judge him negatively on otherwise.
As Rudy, the outlandish Miller definitely has the best, funniest lines of the night, and yet still elicits genuine, well-earned affection as he perfectly acts out the struggles of an aging man whose life is near its apex. Miller's pro-New York tirade might as well be put to good use by the New York tourism authority. And as Linda, who is as lovely on the inside as she is outside, Staunton's caring, sweet exterior combined with her strong and resilient personality represents what many of us may deem as the mom we all wish to have in our lives---one that can show deep concern without being too intrusive or controlling. Her scenes with Miller feel less like a nurse-patient dynamic but rather a woman who truly loves another unconditionally. Ultimately, we all root for her character's happiness most of all, thanks to her brilliant, admirably refined performance.
As contemporary comedy-dramas go, this fresh, humanly relatable, and altogether beguiling new play---which was commissioned by South Coast Repertory and first debuted as a staged reading at the 2016 Pacific Playwrights Festival---has to be one of the most thoroughly engaging, emotionally piercing new works I have seen this season. Lively, approachable, and at times wickedly funny but then turns all-together heartbreaking in a flash, this superb, character-driven play about choices examines---via intriguingly intersecting family dynamics---the kind of sacrifices certain people make without hesitation in order to promote the well-being of others whom they feel are in much more dire need. What is wonderfully surprising about CURVE OF DEPARTURE is that, just like the uncertainty of life---it shatters expected tropes and familiar clichés one may have about dramas that explore these kinds of family interactions.
Here's hoping that the play sees more future productions throughout the country because it truly is an excellent piece of theater.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Danielle Bliss & Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
The world premiere production of CURVE OF DEPARTURE continues at South Coast Repertory through October 15, 2017. 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.