by Norm Foster
Theatre New Brunswick
Finishing to a standing ovation, Drinking Alone, the Norm Foster comedy which opened at Theatre New Brunswick on Friday night, appears to be another success for Foster and TNB.
I have to admit that when I heard the premise of the play, my heart sank. It's not hard to predict -- on the basis of dozens of similar experiences in the movies, on television, and on the stage -- that the escort service girl hired to serve a narrowly prescribed display function is going to turn out to serve much wider purposes (Julia Roberts, call your office). And it's difficult to avoid expecting that a play which begins with a device so well-worn will exhibit other problems.
Still, when a play has no pretensions to being anything other than light comedy, it's difficult to blame or praise it for being exactly what it's advertised as. Drinking Alone is funny, and it's entertaining, and it doesn't require that you do too much thinking, and TNB has given it a solid production.
As with any good situation comedy, the play takes place in one place, over one short period of time, and depends on characters with clearly defined traits which can quickly become predictable encountering a bizarre situation. In this case, the estranged father of two more or less unhappy adult children has suddenly announced that he's coming to visit, after fifteen years of almost no contact whatever, bringing his wife, whom he married after he left his first family to the mercies of their alcoholic mother. The son, a self-proclaimed failure -- proprietor of the family's dead-end drycleaning business -- decides to hire a woman from an escort service to pretend to be his fiancée, so that his father will not see him for the complete social failure he clearly is. The daughter, an apparently successful newsreader for a local television station, reluctantly shows up for the evening.
During the evening, we learn that the daughter's life is not so successful (she's on the verge of alcoholism -- hence the title of the play -- and she and her husband are getting a divorce), that the son's concealed important things from his sister, that the father's facing a life-threatening operation, and that the fake fiancée has hidden depths. The father's come, after fifteen years of apparently total, bitter estrangement, to straighten everything out. And so he does. It was all a misunderstanding. On the road to the resolution, we get a couple of fine performances, a substantial number of laughs, and a few of the moments of confrontation, recognition, and reconciliation which we need to humanize and warm up the characters.
The play's center is held by Catherine Fitch, as Renee, the unquenchably voluble escort service girl. Having agreed to say as little as possible about the history of the "couple," she finds it impossible to stop herself from making up wonderfully detailed lies about her background, how the couple met, and so forth. She creates some of the play's funniest moments as she launches into her elaborate fantasies. Fitch plays what might have been thought of as a Julia Roberts role much more in the style of Carol Burnett, using speed, volume, and timing to get us past some of the stickier problems of the role, such as the complete unexpectedness of her shouting match with Carrie, her "future sister-in-law." Choosing to play Renee as slightly older and frumpier than it seems to me the lines call for, she's a pretty improbable escort service girl. As she developed her voluble ditziness though the evening, I warmed to her.
Walter Learning, as Ivan Todd, the long-estranged father, gives the production a solid, substantial foundation. Although it seemed to me just a bit much that everything about his situation turned out to be the result of fifteen years' worth of obdurate misunderstanding, Foster and Learning give his character enough of an edge to convince us that he'd be pretty hard to like. Still, I never quite figured his position out. Is it because he's a bluff, foul-mouthed straight shooter that his children hate him, or is it because they misunderstood why he left them? If he really left only because he had no choice, and if he really did keep loving the kids and supporting them, and if he really did stay away all those years because his ex-wife told him the kids didn't want to see him, were those the reasons they hated him? Wrong question. I should just accept the fine moment when Learning's Ivan has to realize that his cold stick of a daughter, after fifteen years, wants a hug, and he doesn't know, or remember, how to do it.
George Masswohl is well cast as a somewhat puffy nebbish with bad hair, a loser whose response to the question "what do you do for fun?" is "I don't have any fun." I found his Joe rather wooden, but that may well have been deliberate -- it's difficult to play a fundamentally boring and uninteresting person without running the risk of being boring and uninteresting. While I was unconvinced (though amused) at his implausible struggle with giftwrapping and package tape at the opening, he is convincingly panic-stricken as Renee launches into her detailed fictions about their courtship or his friend the English professor ("well, he doesn't spend a lot of time with Nathan, he's allergic to tweed").
Linda Goranson's Golden Girl turn as Ivan's second wife is charming and lively, and manages to solve with vivacity and sparkle alone problems like her improbably extended cross examination of Renee about the date of the wedding. Janet Monid, as Ivan's daughter Carrie, copes with a pretty narrow role which doesn't let her get much beyond being appalled and depressed, and drinking beer out of the can. If it's rather difficult to believe that her incipient alcoholism and her depression about her failing marriage are cured by a "get your butt in gear" speech and a hug from her father, that's okay: neither the depression nor the alcoholism seem, after all, all that profound. And her plaintive "I mean, we're having 'a moment' here" to her unhuggable father is touching.
A persistent problem with the script -- and I know, if it's just light comedy I shouldn't call this a problem -- is that characters are shuffled on and off stage on the flimsiest of pretexts, in order to clear the decks for one-on-one encounters between various pairs of characters. The lamest, perhaps, is Phyllis's "come out for some girl talk," but the frequency with which Ivan leaves the room to go to the bathroom in the last act, or Rene's recurrent racing for the kitchen in tears when anyone mentions her daughter and her lack of a husband in the same sentence, are also pretty clearly moments when the heavy hand of the playwright reaches in from the wings and whips folks out of the way. Similarly, David Sherren's direction keeps people moving about John Thompson's serviceable set, though occasionally it isn't at all clear why -- other, of course, than to keep them moving.
Perhaps more seriously, frequently delicate topics of conversation (the sort which, among people I know, would come up only with great difficulty and after a good deal of ground preparation), are arbitrarily introduced in order that we can get to a good line or a wrenching recognition. And sometimes what we get to -- for instance, Ivan's "You better face the fact that you and you alone are responsible for your life" -- doesn't seem worth the effort, however much authenticity the actor puts into it. But perhaps it's enough to have fine, well-timed exchanges like Renee's and Ivan's dialogue about Phyllis, crying on the patio: "Did she tell you she was fine?" "Yes." "She's not."
Fans of Norm Foster will find this production just what the mid-January doctor ordered. Others may wonder about the investment of time and imagination and commitment to creating the magic of live theatre in order to bring forth what is, after all, a well produced, good situation comedy.