BWW Review: SUBPRIME at Mixed Blood Theatre by Media Blitz
SUBPRIME is making its Minnesota premiere at Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theatre. Produced by Media Blitz Entertainment, the playwright's company, it's described as "a play about denial, a quintessentially American trick that Minnesotans have mastered in their own special way."
The four primary characters in this story about two couples from MInneapolis' tony Linden Hills neighborhood vacationing in NYC on a trip neither could afford is less about the where they're from and more about the who they are. While the playwright set the show in the places he was living, the locations matter little, though much is being made of that (even by his own quote in the press materials). These four people are definitely all living in a place of denial, and that location matters greatly.
Set in the summer of 2008 as the housing bubble was bursting and people across the nation found they'd gotten themselves in hot water, the Kellys and Swensons, are hiding much from one another and themselves. The story sets out to expose these hidden truths as they have drinks in their overpriced Manhattan three-star hotel room. They talk at length about how they've become friends at neighborhood gatherings but this is a chance to get to know one another much better. It quickly becomes knowing one another a bit too much as the alcohol flows and inhibitions disappear. Both couples learn in phone calls from home that things that there's no escape from the issues they were running away from for a short time.
There's frankly too much going on between the couples, within each of them as people and in their marriages, to expound on in this space. The early discussion brings up many issues of money problems, health issues, child-rearing issues and family planning, alcoholism, racism, classicism and more. Within a span of an hour they reveal a lot of major issues and personality flaws to one another. Throughout, Kurt Kelly (Charles Fraser) also reveals he is a pretty vial human being through his blow-hard, racist, misogynist and classist comments. Brian Swenson (Dan Hopman) comes across as someone who is quietly seems beaten down by his overbearing spouse Sydney (Bonni Allen). Cartwright Crocker-Kelly (Jen Burleigh-Bentz) seems the most level-headed of the four, early on, though she dutifully enables the crass comments Kurt makes.
Then the drunker they get, the more they all unravel and reveal more despicable aspects of themselves. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the four, Allen's Sydney, reveals backstory that explains more about her behavior with her husband, who is more than he seems at first. The more we learn about Sydney, the more we can understand her actions. The same cannot be said for the other three characters. Their behaviors and explanations become more problematic and hard to stomach as they go.
Overall, there is much to think about after viewing this show. As a married person, one can understand some of the undercurrents happening in the couple's relationships. Marriage is hard as it is wonderful and all of us imperfect beings can probably find times in our marriages when we've not been our best selves. The Kellys and the Swensons epitomize this. Job stresses, financial woes and health issues exasperate the challenges they're already facing. But the revelations of their deeper, darker selves are where the show might lose most of the audience member's sympathies.
Most of this is in the writing and some is in the direction. Kurt suggests they're in NYC to wife swap and is physically and verbally toeing the line with sexual abuse as he grabs his wife's breasts and comments on Sydney's. Brian breaks down later in the show and is physically violent toward his wife. Crocker shares her hobby of pursuing very young men and becomes intimate with the bellman (Jorge Quintero) in front of the Swensons. It's all unexpected, rather unpleasant and quite a ride for the last 30 minutes or so of the show. Choosing to include some of the physicality and how far they take it may be on director Peter Moore, but the arc of the story has no real redemption for these people either.
For a first effort as a playwright, Beck Lee is biting off a lot in this fairly swift moving 90-minute show. Reading the author's notes in the program and on the website, it's got a bit of autobiography, but which parts are left to your imagination. Conceived by Lee and his then-wife Andrea Iten, the writing of the play is described as the beginning of the end of their marriage.
The insights into these troubled people's lives are probably most compelling early on when you are able to contemplate the real life struggles and find moments you can identify with in small ways. Then the wheels fall off and the action becomes hard to believe unless you consider the amount of alcohol consumed and realize some of them are also drinking while medicated. The characters continually make poor choices throughout their lives, and are escalating them on this crazy night in Midtown Manhattan. They're left at the end with a bleak outlook with doom and gloom waiting at home once they get out of the current pickle they're in. With the lights up on Sydney as she dumps a handful of pills, one gets the idea that she actually does know about the denial she's been living in and is left with little hope. The bubble has burst.
The actors are all excellent and committed to their performances (yes, even their horrible un-self-aware words and behaviors). The set design by Joe Stanley worked, though you'd be hard pressed to find a hotel suite where the one bathroom was not connected to the bedroom. There was a technical issue w/the sound and light cue the night we saw the show at the beginning so later, when the hotel room TV started playing loud audio again, I was not sure if that was another glitch or on purpose. Costumes and props were suitable -- the flip phones seem much more distant a memory now.
The show is a bit of a bumpy ride. One that I probably wouldn't take again, but I'm not hugely fond of dark comedy. My husband, however, is, and he gave it a thumb's up. So there is an audience for this show and if you're it, give it a try. You will not find redemption in Lee's characters but it will give you things to think about as we live in this age when it seems more and more acceptable to show your worst selves to the world.
More info: https://subprimetheplay.com - Plays through May 27 with an added Monday night show on May 14.
Photo: SUBPRIME cast by Bill Cameron.