Monday, October 23, 2017

A Guide for the Homesick: Buddy Melodrama

Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III in the Huntington Theatre's A Guide for the Homesick. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In Ken Urban’s new play A Guide for the Homesick, which the Huntington Theatre is producing in its South End space at the Calderwood Pavilion, two young Boston men meet at an Amsterdam bar and wind up in a hotel room. For Teddy (McKinley Belcher III), the encounter is a pick-up, but when he hints around, Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine) assures him that he’s misread the signals – though we’re not so sure. The set-up is familiar: this is a strangers-with-secrets play. Teddy has been vacationing with a work friend who’s about to get married, and for some reason his traveling companion has disappeared and his fiancée keeps calling Teddy’s cell phone. Jeremy went to Africa as a medical aid worker after graduating from Harvard and something went disastrously wrong, prompting him to return – reluctantly – to the States.

The play runs for only seventy-five minutes, but it’s so overstocked that Urban can’t possibly accomplish everything he wants to in that time. Each of the men’s stories is ratcheted high, and Jeremy’s, which has political as well as sexual elements, is extremely involved; on top of those is the attraction between the two characters, bundled with Jeremy’s confusion about his own sexuality. Dramatic action occurs with such speed that the motivations of the two characters feel truncated and the second half, where one revelation follows another, is so melodramatic that you simply stop believing in the narrative. Colman Domingo’s direction exacerbates the problem: he keeps going for theatrical fireworks rather than letting the interaction between Teddy and Jeremy breathe.

The play makes strenuous demands of the two actors. Not only are they the whole show, but about midway through Urban makes an abrupt shift in style, and as Jeremy tells Teddy the story of his friendship with a patient, a closeted African conducting a clandestine affair with a married man, Belcher takes on the role of the patient. Later, when Teddy begins to talk about the quarrel that precipitated his friend’s departure, Jeremy becomes the friend, a bipolar man in a manic phase. (For some reason Urban repeats the beginning of this scene twice.) You certainly admire the two actors’ skill at seesawing between characters, and it works with Belcher, who brings humor and seductive charm to his second role that are strikingly different from the aggressive sexual energy and physical restlessness he uses for Teddy. (I also liked Belcher in the Huntington’s production of Smart People a couple of seasons ago.) I’m not sure there’s any way to make the manic bridegroom-to-be work; the switch feels too much like a stunt. Levine is more comfortable in the role of Jeremy, though as the play goes on and the character gets more unmoored his performance, too, becomes less grounded.

In David Mamet’s Oleanna, a constantly ringing phone works on the audience’s nerves, providing an extra layer of tension. Here it’s the musical signal of Teddy’s cell phone, which he refuses to pick up. As in Oleanna, it’s a gimmick for working up the audience – you want to leap onto the stage and answer the goddamn phone – and if there’s one thing A Guide for the Homesick doesn’t need, it’s more melodrama.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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