nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 15, 2009
Lavaman has big ambitions: its storytelling style is complex; it includes video animations based on its main character's graphic novel; its plot twists involve dead reindeer and lost lovers and showdowns with lesbian Hell's Angels. But in spite of the big goals, it all too often loses its grip on the basic building blocks that should make it work: the writing gets sloppy or too self-consciously edgy; the exposition is heavy-handed; the relationships, and sometimes the acting, don't connect; the back-story of the characters doesn't cohere.
The play takes place over the course of a single evening, but scenes jump back and forth in time between the end of the night—when catastrophe has already struck, leaving one character stabbed and bleeding to death, seemingly at the hands of one of the others—and the beginning, which was an ordinary evening, until it took a turn toward chaos.
So to begin at the beginning (of the story, not the play): Gill, Dino, and Archie used to have a punk band—or a series of punk bands, beginning as far back as high school. Then Archie died and Dino went to jail on a drugs charge (emerging as a completely different guy, a hedge-fund trader with a chauffeur) and Gill inherited his mother's falling-down apartment in Queens. Meanwhile, this whole time, Archie's twin brother, Arnie, was living a different life: prep school, art school, and now he's an aspiring graphic novelist who's wound up living with Gill for reasons that are never entirely clear, working on his graphic novel, "Lavaman." (Excerpts from the graphic novel are projected as animations throughout the play; there ultimately proves to be a connection between the story and the brothers' childhood.)
On the night in question, Gill is still miserable because his girlfriend has recently left him for another woman (Jello, who was formerly Gill's best friend), plus he's suffering from an ulcer, back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Arnie has finished "Lavaman" in his head, but not in the flesh. Then they start popping pills (including a running joke about the different-colored options that recalls Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases, another play about a disintegrating crew of ex-bandmates that seems to be an influence here).
No one's seen Dino in years, but he turns up unexpectedly on their doorstep (again, for unclear reasons): it's his birthday, and he wants to celebrate with them, in an over-the-top fashion tied into his new mission: to consume every species of living thing on the earth (and yes, he really means every species). He's also brought a bottle of Loverman, a fortified wine that the guys used to drink in high school. Between the pills and the alcohol, all three are soon revved up, to the point where they decide they need to stage a raid on Jello's Hell's Angels camp in revenge for Jello's stealing Gill's girlfriend.
At which point the two time-frames (before the raid, and disastrously after it) meet in the middle.
There are some weird and wonderful moments (a description of the pranks the guys used to play with Christmas-decoration reindeer stands out in my memory), but there's also a lot of sloppy writing—big swaths of clumsy (and often unnecessary) exposition, repetition, and a lot of poorly paced setup, especially in the early scenes between Gill and Arnie. These scenes establish a lot of old history between the characters, but don't really get us to an understanding of the characters' actions in the present—especially why Dino shows up. On the other hand, much of the exposition does establish really simplistic big-picture emotional motivations for characters who would be more interesting if less explicitly explained. As the play goes on and Lavaman becomes more and more literally rooted in traumas from Arnie's childhood, he becomes less and less interesting as either an artwork or a metaphor.
Also, both Adam Belvo's portrayal of Dino and Matthew Hancock's direction of him seem designed to push into caricature a character who already has a larger-than-life streak. Where Dino could be just off-balance enough to be scary, an unreliable narrator whose descriptions of his own life might or might not be true, instead he becomes bombastic. And he, too, is saddled with overly literal motivations for his most over-the-top actions (a sister sucked into drugs by a vegan cult seems to have spurred his aggressive carnivore-ism).
Somewhere in this play is a potentially powerful story about three young men who are failing to figure out how to make it in the world, and masking that failure in different, but all ultimately unsuccessful, ways. But that story is buried under too many extraneous elements, while still missing some of the internal logic and connections that would make it come to life.