Monday, May 23, 2011

Intricate Family Drama

Neil Haven’s latest looks at cross-generational conflict

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Over the years, playwright Neil Haven has proved himself to be pretty versatile. From a comedy about a woman afraid to leave an elevator to a vaguely bizarre comedy about internet dating and even a short about anthropomorphized ducks in Las Vegas, Haven’s style has varied quite a bit.With his latest, he tackles a very complex family dynamic between five different characters. And though there is quite definitely that distinct Haven sense of humor throughout the script, Pink Champagne is actually a very complex family drama that explores a uniquely contemporary intergenerational dynamic.

First Stage Associate Artistic Director John Maclay plays Gene—a conservative dentist with a wife named Corrinme (Uprooted Theatre co-founder Marti Gobel) and teenaged son named Joey (actual Shorewood High School senior Ari Shapiro.) Gene’s son got into a fight at school. Evidently he’s gay—a bit of a problem for a conservative guy who had a father who was also gay.

Joey leaves the small, rural town he lives in to stay at his grandfather’s house in Milwaukee. His grandfather Donald (John Kishline) is at first thrilled to have his grandson visit., even if it’s disrupting resolution of marital problems he’s having with his husband Patrick (T. Stacy Hicks.) Things get a bit complicated when Gene and Corrine show-up to get Joey back.

This is an ensemble piece that manages to lean pretty equally on all five characters. The conflict between all six is impressively symmetrical, flowing quite evenly throughout the entirety of what is actually kind of a long story. Director Dennis F. Johnson has the good fortune of working with a really good cast on a solidly good script.

As Corrine, Gobel manages to come across as a woman living in a kind of marital desperation with her husband while simultaneously bringing a kind of emotional strength to the stage that keeps her from seeming like a victim.

Seasoned veteran Kishline is a great deal of fun as an aging man of wealth with a streak of humanitarian mischief about him. There’s a respectably classy weariness about him in the role that plays well against the relative youth of T. Stacy Hicks as his husband Patrick.

Hicks is a really talented actor who has made his mark on area stages in Shakespearian roles. It’s a lot of fun to see him in a more contemporary role. He takes to the specific style and cadence of contemporary comic dialogue exceedingly well.

Ari Shapiro is playing someone only slightly younger than he actually is, which is vastly preferable to a college student playing a high school kid, but Haven’s rendering of Joey skews a bit on the more immature side of advanced high school years. Shapiro ends up with a bit more of a challenge her than merely playing someone his age, Joey’s conflict is the instigating stress that puts much of the rest of the play’s conflict into motion. It’s a rough time for him and he’s being kind of childish. Shapiro does a pretty good job of playing a guy acting childish because of recent circumstances, but there’s texture in the character that he isn’t quite able to bring to the stage.

John Maclay does an admirable job bringing conservative paternal figure to life. He’s a profoundly conflicted and complicated person and Maclay brings across that complexity quite well. The problem is that Haven’s rendering of the character doesn’t feel authentic. To be sure, there probably are conservatives who feel that homosexuality is a choice due to issues with their parents. A man who grew-up having to deal with his father cheating on his wife with one of his teachers is an interesting topic for staged drama, but with it all playing out in dialogue about the past, it comes across as more of an afterthought. And anti-gay sentiment being a major factor in the motivating factors behind the plot, the drama would’ve benefited from a more sophisticated look into the pathology of anti-gay conservatism. The character of Gene isn’t a stiff stereotype and Maclay does a good job of making him seem human, but there’s a kind of depth missing within the character that no expository revelation about his childhood is going to fix.

Mild weaknesses aside, Pink Champagne is an interesting drama that strikes a much more provocative tone than anything Haven has done to date.   

Uprooted/MGAC’s production of Pink Champagne runs through June 5th at the Tenth Street Theatre. For tickets, click here

 

 

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