nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 10, 2012
Walter and Marjorie are a pretty ordinary couple. They live in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood in a major city, and they’re financially stretched thin no matter how hard they work (Walter in a boring and underpaid office job and Marjorie as a freelancer). They have good hearts, but they don’t always remember to treat each other kindly with all the stress they’re under. They’re desperately looking forward to a long-overdue vacation (as Marjorie says, “If we lived in a civilized society where 80 percent of our income didn’t go to rent, we might even take one every decade”) and, somewhat over Marjorie’s objections, they have to go to Walter’s office party tonight. And then, there’s Luther.
At the outset of Ethan Lipton’s Luther (the second entry in Clubbed Thumb’s annual Summerworks Festival), all we know about Luther is that he can’t be left alone when Walter and Marjorie go on that trip. He’s part of their family unit, but how: Is he a pet? A child? An invalid under their care? Whoever or whatever he is, he’s half-asleep under an afghan on their couch as they bicker while they get ready for the party. Then Marjorie has the idea to bring Luther—somewhat over Walter’s objections this time, as it’s possible Luther might get “psychotically oversensitive.” He has in the past, after all.
All of this is subtle, keenly observed, character-based dark comedy, but there’s an undercurrent of something a little more heightened, a little more stylized. Yet Walter and Marjorie are utterly recognizable and relatable; we see their flaws and their good-faith efforts to rise above them. Their stresses and their insecurities threaten to make them nasty to each other, even as they want to be better. Walter tends toward being a blamer and a worrier (Marjorie asks him, “What do you think would happen if you tried not to worry at all?” and Walter’s answer, mostly serious, is “Sadly, I would burst into flames.”), but he’s also genuinely an optimist about human nature. Marjorie can be a little impulsive and judgmental, but she’s got enormous compassion, too.
But then, there’s that level, slowly growing throughout the play, on which we realize something isn’t quite right here; there’s something going on in this world that doesn’t quite align with the world with we know, or with the piece of realist theater we think we’re watching. For one thing, Walter’s colleagues? They’re sock puppets. And then, again, there’s Luther. Who, we slowly realize, is a veteran of the recent wars who’s been adopted by Walter and Marjorie. They love him, and they’re as protective of him as they would be of any child, but there’s damage in him that either they’re blind to or they’ve adjusted to. It becomes radically clear when they put him in a situation with other people that his reactions, his responses, his reading of social cues, aren’t quite calibrated properly for a casual social event. Marjorie’s promised to look out for Luther, but he just wants to talk with people like a “normal” adult.
At the office party, Walter seems content enough, if a little bored, talking to some of his colleagues. After Luther expresses his wish to go off on his own for a bit, Marjorie gets cornered by the socially awkward Morris; after a few cocktails and a little dancing, she grows to find him positively charming. You can almost see the “click” in her brain when her inhibitions get lowered enough by wine to start thinking Morris is kind of fun—and to start thinking how nice it is to lay down her responsibilities for just a little while. Which, of course, inevitably, is when things start to really go wrong.
What’s really makes the play work so effectively is Lipton’s control, underscored by Ken Rus Schmoll’s economical direction: exposition is measured out in the minimum necessary doses, and we get to know both characters and world with painstaking, thoughtful slowness. The piece ends up grappling with a lot of substantive social issues, and with big ideas about how society does and should work, without a drop of didacticism. All of its developments rise out of the characters; information and opinions are presented fully grounded in emotional situations. It would be easy to get on a soapbox at a lot of points in this play, but that never, ever happens, and Lipton never neglects the little details in service of the big issues: the guy at the office party who wants to talk about shingles; the way Marjorie and Walter rehash fights when they’re feeling stressed out and anxious; Luther’s anxiety about where to dispose of his gum at the fancy party. Even the play’s biggest chunk of exposition (by a police officer late in the play) is entirely germane to the scene in which it’s inserted.
Like the writing, the production is restrained and understated; design elements are simple (with a few effects from lighting designer Lucrecia Briseno that change the mood of the space). Schmoll’s staging keeps the focus always on the actors: primarily Gibson Frazier and Kelly Mares as Walter and Marjorie, with both the strength and the fragility of their relationship always visible; and Bobby Moreno as Luther, with a genuine sweetness but also an unpredictability that’s both endearing and frightening. But the supporting players are strong too: Crystal Finn, who has the challenge of playing an array of bureaucratic sock puppets and making them all part of the piece’s world; John Ellison Conlee, strange but well-meaning as Morris; and Pete Simpson, stalwart and unflappable as the piece’s functionaries—a waiter Luther interacts with at the party who gives him a lot to think about, and a captain.
And because the piece is just that one notch skewed from an entirely realistic, naturalistic presentation, the moments of heightened emotion, and the moments when we’re suddenly faced with the distance between Luther’s world and ours, really pack a punch. And it’s that emotional punch that makes it work. There’s one scene at the end that I think could be a little pared back, but I think it only stands out because the rest of the play has been so understated, so thought-provoking in a quiet way that says a lot about the terrors of our current America, and what it could be very much on the edge of turning into. Marjorie and Walter, like so many of us, want to do the right thing—in an inarticulate, unexpressed way. They don’t really know what price they—and others—will pay.