nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 29, 2008
So, a married guy and a single guy walk into a dive bar. Then this third guy, a total stranger, starts messing with them, and then the first guy's wife shows up. It sounds like the set up for a shaggy-dog sort of joke, but it's also, in a nutshell, the first two-thirds of Stephen Belber's Fault Lines—which, after its very simply structured beginning, goes on to pack a few good plot-twisting wallops into its last half-hour. It gets progressively more implausible but simultaneously more thoroughly enjoyable as it goes, largely due to a no-holds-barred performance by Noah Emmerich (as the total stranger).
The first part of the play is all about Bill and Jim, old buddies who are somewhat out of touch these days as their lives go in different directions (Bill is married, starting to plan a family, and working in a more-or-less corporate job; Jim is still single, inventing and proselytizing for composting toilets, and getting himself into certain complicated situations with much younger women). It's Bill's 39th birthday, and they're finally catching up at an old favorite dive bar (well-designed down to the mismatched chairs by Cameron Anderson)—which involves shooting a little pool, quite a bit of chatting about their prostates, some chitchat about Bill's marriage and Jim's recent fling with a college student, and a lot of reassuring each other that they're still close.
Although Josh Lucas (Bill) and Dominic Fumusa (Jim) are both very likeable actors, this part of the play feels both a little thinly written and far too languidly paced, and consequently both performances at this point feel a little forced. Granted, part of this is that Jim and Bill's relationship is feeling a little forced, even to them, right now, but the writing is also treading in somewhat overworked territory at this point. The idea that marriage equals adulthood, and anyone single into his or her 30s has by definition failed in some key way to grow up—not to mention the idea that having kids means a total life reinvention and a woman might need to quit her job to do it—feels pretty thoroughly played out to me. Sure, it's mildly refreshing to have two men rather than two women hashing over the subject, but the play really doesn't start to click into a higher gear until the mysterious stranger, Joe, shows up.
At first, Joe doesn't seem so mysterious—he's just an annoying, lonely guy working way too hard at getting into "bar talk" with two total strangers who'd rather be left alone. He's asking oddly intrusive personal questions; he's willfully ignoring all the social cues by which the others show he's unwelcome; and he really seems hung up, for no apparent reason, on the idea that Bill's wife and Jim had some sort of affair, in the past or even ongoing into the present. There's no apparent reason for Joe to be there, or to be so interested in them, but they can't seem to shake him; where Bill is ready to write the whole night off and go home, Jim insists that they have to stick it out and reclaim their night and their bar. Before you know it, they're sharing a round of shots and mini hot-dogs, and Joe just won't let up with the intrusions. There's still not a whole lot happening, but the sparks of conflict and tension give Lucas and Fumusa something to sink their teeth into, and the play really starts to take off on all levels—the acting, the writing, and the pacing.
Noah Emmerich, as Joe, also single-handedly jolts the energy level of the play. Joe could easily seem like a complete plot contrivance (which he kind of is, but in a much more conscious and complicated way than it appears at first), but Emmerich makes him so interesting to watch that it doesn't really matter. He's just so weird—a bucket of inappropriateness, loneliness, aggressiveness, and strangeness—that you never quite know what he's going to do next. It rapidly starts to become clear that either there's a not-yet-apparent intentionality to his presence or he's a dangerously trouble-making kind of crazy, and trying to figure out how that's going to play out keeps the audience hooked.
So of course when Bill's wife, Jess, drops by to say hi, she steps right into the middle of the tension Joe has created, and the rift—the "fault line"—that Joe is prying between Jim and Bill. Her ignorance of the weirdness that's already occurred, and Jim and Bill's desires to keep her ignorant of it, ratchet things up one more notch. And where Emmerich's energy is a little unnerving and very unpredictable, Jennifer Mudge as Jess is warm, clear, and grounded; she's the only person in the play who feels like she hasn't lost her grip on common sense by the point she arrives.
Jess's arrival is also approximately where the plot really starts twisting and turning in ways I won't reveal (other than to say there were actual gasps in the audience around me!). I didn't find all the places it went particularly believable, but the genuine unpredictability of the last third of the play, and the high gear all four actors are in by that point, made the ride a great deal of fun anyway.