BWW Review: THE BEST BROTHERS Delivers Style, Comedy, and the Triumph of Catharsis

When elderly, diminutive Ardith "Bunny" Best is crushed to death by a drag queen named Piña Colada and an audio speaker from a gay pride parade float, her two surviving family members, sons Hamilton and Kyle Best, join forces despite clashing personalities to handle funeral arrangements. A witty, fascinating excursion into the psychology of character creation and identity, Ensemble's production of The Best Brothers is both intelligent and entertaining. Though a two-person show, playwright Daniel MacIvor invites the audience to develop impressions of a third character, Mrs. Best, through second-hand sources-two lifetimes of emotional baggage. A play about mourning, remembrance, and learning to love, Ensemble delivers a stylish comedy that incorporates elements both absurd and tragic.

Of Bunny Best's two sons, Kyle (Kasey Mahaffy) is irreverent and flamboyant, while Hamilton (Michael Polak) tends toward somber. The initial dramatic drive of the show is the brothers' dissenting opinions about how to best represent their mother through funerary proceedings, including an obituary and eulogy. There are basic facts about Mrs. Best that cannot be argued, but each son's unique impression of their mother (based on their differing childhood experiences) creates tension as they try to agree on an ideal description. The dramatic foundation of unresolved childhood issues is perfunctory, but necessary: "She loved you best," Kyle says to Hamilton. "She loved you harder," Hamilton returns. The more deeply we get to know Kyle and Hamilton, so too do we develop an impression of Bunny based on her sons' variant opinions of her.

Then, something fantastic and unexpected happens: we meet Bunny Best. Theatrical storytelling is multi-dimensional; staged action can give subtext or direction that may differ from production to production. The interpretable aspects of a play are more frequent and various than, for example, the more static form of the novel. Proxies of Mrs. Best are provided through both Kyle and Hamilton, who don their mother's hat and gloves to perform monologues in her stead. In these scenes lies an interesting puzzle: are these monologues, which detail emblematic moments in Bunny's life, meant to be objective? Or are these anecdotes told through the lens of the son reciting them? The intimacy of these explanations of times past supports the argument that we are seeing an honest representation of Mrs. Best, even if it's only an echo, physically present through the constructs of theatrical storytelling. Yet the psychology of perceived characterization cannot be avoided, and everything we learn about Mrs. Best through these scenes is intricately tied to our insight into the brother performing the monologue. The availability of this ambiguity creates tiers of meaning: we see Mrs. Best through her sons, just as we begin to see Hamilton and Kyle through Mrs. Best. According to Cooley's concept of the "looking-glass self," we (as members of the audience, a microcosm of humanity in general), create opinions based on accumulated information: our perception of people (ourselves and fictional characters included) is influenced by the reactions and responses of others. It's impossible to completely divorce the information we've learned about Mrs. Best through Kyle and Hamilton from Bunny's own accounts of her life in the same way that it's difficult to reach the depths of any character without seeing them in context. The Best Brothers is a well-formulated example of this looking-glass perception, one that provokes the audience to question whether or not identity can ever be completely fixed or known.

Interesting storytelling has layers of complexity. The Best Brothers offers a psychological study of the nature of meaning, a view of the relative importance of objects and events by way of the seemingly incongruous relationship between sentimentality and nihilism. Lazy, unearned sentimentality gives any story a saccharine quality that leaves gaps in development, forcing the audience to make strained leaps to understand character motivation. MacIvor and director Brian Schnipper, thankfully, have avoided these annoying pitfalls: the brothers are sentimental about their mother without waxing poetic; the meaning derived from the reflection of their individual relationships with her is equally positive and negative. The importance that is suddenly placed on her dog, her home, and her possessions is played evenly against the idea that any meaning, whether newly observed or established and seemingly continuous, is invented. The house goes to Kyle, who, in his youth, considered it a mausoleum representative of all that he wasn't and all that his mother thought he should be. Bunny's beloved Italian greyhound, Enzo, goes to Hamilton, who is initially averse to fostering a creature his mother loved so unconditionally, an experience he felt lacking in his own childhood. Enzo, a useful substitution for Mrs. Best, destroys Hamilton's $250,000 kitchen. In a subsequent, one-sided conversation with the dog, Hamilton finds some measure of closure: none of this matters, he realizes of his destroyed kitchen and rocky relationships. In a moment of rarely-witnessed desperation, he demands answer to a question that has plagued him for decades: Why don't you like me?

But the house can't judge Kyle, and Enzo can't offer Hamilton condolence or clarity. These agonizing moments, seamlessly nestled in the play's otherwise humorous vibrancy, show the Best brothers for who they are in earnest: flawed people who question their own worth. Questions about the nature of significance float below the surface of the dialogue: how can something meaningless be important? How can something important be, ultimately, meaningless? The Best Brothers presents evolving priorities: things that were important dissolve into nonexistence and things that never before begged reflection become consuming.

Fast and comic, MacIvor's script doesn't muddle through the unnecessary. There's very little throughout the play that hinders the inertia of the plot, and The Best Brothers charges, taut, toward conclusion in a manner befitting the complicated, chaotic nature of Hamilton and Kyle's experience of loss, mourning, and acceptance. Ensemble's production of The Best Brothers is entertaining and thought provoking, and maintains a sense of playfulness even in its most moving moments. Well constructed and designed, The Best Brothers is about learning to love in ways previously unavailable: both Kyle and Hamilton find new appreciation for themselves and each other, and come to recognize the tenderness they feel for their mother, an affection they couldn't grasp comprehensively during her lifetime. Both Mahaffy and Polak handled their roles with a notable balance of subtlety and comedy, perpetuating naturalness in their performances and offering a satisfying range of emotion. The Best Brothers is a fascinating journey into the process of character creation through memory and perception-as well as a touching, accessible story about the surprising triumph of catharsis, even when significance is gleaned from the absurd.

The Best Brothers
Written by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Brian Schnipper
American Premier by Ensemble Theatre Company
December 4th-21st

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From This Author Maggie Yates