Review: “Birthday Boy”, A New Romantic Comedy at Berkshire Theatre Group

(Seen Above are James Ludwig and Tara Franklin as Matt and Melora in Birthday Boy)

With one of the strongest casts ever assembled at the Berkshire Theatre Group, Chris Newbound’s new play gives the four actors a real opportunity to romance each other while delivering some really funny and ironic lines. As directed by Wes Grantom, the acting is the best thing about this new play, yet another “world premiere” of a work that is really not quite finished.

Still, from the moment that Matt (James Ludwig) jogs onstage fresh from a run, the turf this story occupies is both fresh and familiar. He’s on a break from work, and returns to the company’s snack room where he finds Melora (Tara Franklin) and they begin talking. She is 30, and he is about to turn 40. He jogs. She runs marathons. They decide to do a run together and she outclasses him. Later they play darts and she is far better at it than him, but throws the competition. They flirt. A spark ignites.

James Ludwig and Keira Naughton in Birthday Boy at Berkshire Theatre Group.

But in Birthday Boy, things don’t always go in chronological order, and in the second act things get confusing as the play skips forward and back in time, creating a jigsaw puzzle out of what is essentially a day in their lives. Towards the end of the first act we meet Matt’s wife Arianne (Keira Naughton) at their home (and hear his children, offstage). Then Arianne’s student turned stalker Julian (Nick Dillenburg) turns up and the kids let him in since he says he is the pizza man. Yet the kids don’t seem at all interested in pizza. It was just the writer’s handy device to get Julian into the house.

A more experienced and knowledgeable playwright might have cued the audience into his basic premise, or listed the multiple time and scene changes through notes in the program. Something was needed to get the playgoers on the same page as him, But no such effort to “idiot proof” the play was made. As with so many writers with impressive degrees, they apparently don’t teach anything about how important it is to make sure the audience follows and understands what is going on. Instead, attending these new plays sometimes reminds me of taking an imaginary course in Reading Comprehension 101 where obstacles are deliberately placed in the way, inhibiting the ability of the audience to get one on one with the characters.

Things most certainly shouldn’t be predictable, – where’s the fun in that! – but the audience shouldn’t walk out of the theatre wondering “what was the point,” either. It felt like a soap opera, tune in tomorrow for another whole set of problems.

In the case of Birthday Boy, at least according to the subscriber enrichment notes, the whole play seems to be built around the question of whether – when Matt turns 40 – if he can be induced (seduced) into having an affair with a co-worker. Melora has her own story, and discerning her motivations is actually a fun mystery to solve. Tara Franklin plays that role extremely well, and here Newbound never lets her get ahead of herself. As Matt, James Ludwig never answers a question directly, instead he responds with a one liner or non sequitur. His wife, Arianne, as played by Keira Naughton, asks all the right questions but seldom gets a direct answer. She also never smiles, or jokes, or displays any real concern or caring for Matt. As the young student and skateboarder Nick Dillenburg pulled it off, even though he was just a bit too old for the part, just as James Ludwig was perhaps a bit too young.

James Ludwig and Tara Franklin in Birthday Boy at Berkshire Theatre Group.

During the second act in which there is a fantasy sequence, there is also a lot of noodle eating by Matt and Melora. Initially the whole cast struck me as delicious eye candy, but that talking and eating scene with noodles dangling from the lips popped that bubble. Much of the dialogue, especially in the first half of the first act was very funny, and the audience clearly lapped up the give and take between Tara Franklin and James Ludwig. But from the moment that the playwright introduced the dour Arianne, she put a damper on everything.

Does this play meet the challenge of being logical? That is a good question. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that a highly responsible husband would not suddenly decide to go out drinking with a co-worker on the evening of his 40th Birthday. Not with a wife and children at home waiting for him and birthday cake to be had. It does not meet the reality test. The whole play is built around the fact that he misses his surprise party, and does not call home after he decided to go out with his co-worker. The two further compound the situation when they return to the office after clubbing where they slurp noodles and steal beer. I am willing to suspend disbelief when I see a play but not logic.

Act One ends when Matt’s wife Arianne has a fainting spell and ends up in the hospital. We see him visiting her in the ER and they finally seem to get close to having a heart to heart talk about their relationship, but it is tentative and indecisive. Then in Act Two we go back in time to the workplace with Matt and Melora. There is even a fantasy sequence. There is a staying and there is a parting. Which was real, which was imaginary. The playwright needs to make up his mind and then clarify the relationships. It seems the final scene of Act One was the closing scene of the play, whereupon we get the pre-story in Act Two.

Because Chris Newbound lives in Williamstown (he was editor of Berkshire Living for five years before it folded some months ago) he was able to have Birthday Boy read at Main Street Stage, Berkshire Playwright’s Lab in 2009 and the BTF in 2010. Each time he added or deleted characters as he rewrote the work. Readings and feedback are part of the vetting process most theatre companies go through in order to judge new works. Feedback from the public is fine, but one has to wonder where the mentors are. Critical comments are fine, but then there is a real need for repairing the parts of a play that don’t work. That is the real tough part.

The Berkshire Theatre Group often uses the Unicorn Theatre as its incubator for new works, and Birthday Boy may be a bit of a preemie, but it certainly also has a lot going for it. Birthday Boy has great acting, solid direction, superb costumes,and a healthy foundation.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Berkshire Theatre Group presents Birthday Boy by Chris Newbound, Wes Grantom (Direcor), Kenneth Grady Barker (Sets), Charles Schoonmaker (Costumes), Derek Wright (Lights), Phil Pickens (Sound), Kyle S. Urquhart (Stage Manager). Cast: Nick Dillenburg (Julian), Tara Franklin (Melora),James Ludwig (Matt), Keira Naughton (Arianne). About two hours with one intermission. August 30-October 16, 2011.At the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Group. Stockbridge, MA.

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