Review: THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER – and There is Sweet Love and Comic Domesticity on the Menu

By: Oct. 10, 2016
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David Viviers, Andrew Laubscher and Megan
Furniss in Richard Kaplan's THE FINKELSTEINS
Photo credit: Nardus Engelbrecht

Every now and then, there is a love scene in a play that manages to ring true both within the context of the drama and in the world in which the production is presented. The "People Like Us" sequence in Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's THE WILD PARTY was such a scene, as was the climax of Gideon Lombard, Tara Notcutt and Albert Pretorius's ...MISKIEN.

In Richard Kaplan's THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER, there is just such a scene. It is true that it does not make you catch your breath like THE WILD PARTY does or reduce you to tears as ...MISKIEN did. And there is nothing wrong with that; indeed, part of the strength of this scene is that it simply is what it is. Midway through THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER, gay artist Nate is woken by his model-lover-boyfriend, James, and the two have a heart-to-heart on the bed in Nate's studio apartment. For a few minutes, the two seem to connect without the shadow of Nate's mother, who haunts her son and his home, tying cushions around her head to escape the sounds of their sexual encounters, which she swears she does not watch, hovering over them. The irony of it all is that Nate can never escape her completely, the play ultimately dealing with whether or not this will prevent him from moving forward in his relationship with James. Here, it all seems possible.

Why this scene strikes such an honest chord, I think, is because it represents a defining moment in all queer relationships. Propriety would have me say that all relationships are complicated, or that straight couples have to deal with their baggage too. But I am not going to. Queer relationships are subject to an entirely different range of narratives, many of which do not align with the grand narratives that the media continues to feed us about what constitutes a relationship and, indeed, a successful relationship. Kaplan acknowledges this fact in this scene, which is what prevents it from sliding into mawkish sentimentality. This play is not afraid of to be queer theatre, nor is it afraid of being queer theatre that deals with the domesticity of queerness. That Kaplan has a gift for finding the comedy in all of this social dialogue is all for the better.

David Viviers, Andrew Laubscher and Megan
Furniss in Richard Kaplan's THE FINKELSTEINS
Photo credit: Nardus Engelbrecht

Nate and James are played by Andrew Laubscher and David Viviers. Both create characters that are people one might meet walking around Cape Town or - perhaps - in the foyer of your apartment complex should you be as homebound as Nate appears to be. The two are utterly believable and, more importantly, encapsulate a compelling sense of humanity throughout the play, even when they are petulant or self-conscious or unsociable or making choices that we recognise, from our own behaviour, to be things that might be destructive to their lives. If their style of playing was perhaps a little too small for the City Hall venue where THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER made its debut, their work will find its stride in the Alexander Bar's more intimate Upstairs Theatre.

As Nate's omnipresent mother, Megan Furniss is something of a revelation. No stranger to Cape Town audiences, especially to those who follow her work on the improv circuit, Furniss comes into her own here in a way that makes one want to see her tackle more and more scripted theatre. (Might I suggest, for a start, the role of Silda Grauman in Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES to anyone who wants to underwrite a production of this 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama?) In THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER, Furniss tackles a role that could easily slip into stereotype or caricature. Two things ensure this never happens: the way that she plays her relationship to Laubscher's Nate and the way that she builds this woman's identity around her culture, religion and class instead of letting her identity be her culture, religion or class - a smart, carefully pitched performance.

David Vivers, Andrew Laubscher and Megan Furniss
Photo credit: Guy de Lancey

Adrian Collins directs THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER with a free and comic hand, balancing well the shifts in register and style as the play switches between scenes that focus on Nate and James and those into which Nate's mother intrudes. When the two overlap, as they do more and more as the action progresses, he mines the juxtaposition for both visual and physical comedy.

The set, designed by the cast, director and the staff at the Alexander Bar, Café and Theatre, is quite splendid. Its strength in details extends not only to the inclusion of the numerous items that create Nate's apartment but also in how lived in it makes the space feel. A key feature of the design is the series of paintings by Evan Oberholster that are used as the work Nate is planning to present at his upcoming exhibition. These add a layer of authenticity that contribute to the overall scenic design of the production, which is stylishly lit by Guy de Lancey. De Lancey creates a particularly beautiful state for the scene described at the start of this review.

THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER is in the middle of a relatively extended run in Cape Town, having played 11 performances at the Cape Town Fringe, with 15 performances at the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre to go. Kaplan's debut as a produced playwright offers an evening of solid entertainment. For its pivotal love scene alone, it is worth going to see what is being cooked up for the Finkelsteins' visit.

THE FINKELSTEINS ARE COMING FOR DINNER runs at the Alexander Upstairs until 29 October, with shows taking place at 19:00 until 22 October and at 21:00 for the remainder of the run. Tickets cost R140-R150 and can be booked online or at the bar, anytime during its regular opening hours. An exhibition of male nudes by the production's artist, Evan Oberholster, is on view in the Alexander Bar's parlour room during the run. Telephone bookings can be made on 021 300 1652. Alexander Bar & Café is situated on 76 Strand Street in Cape Town's CBD. Find out more about the venue on Facebook or Twitter.