The Debate Plays
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 10, 2006
You know how when you pass by a playground and you hear the screams and laughter of the kids you can’t help but smile or giggle yourself because the laughter—the fun that the kids are having—is so contagious. It’s irresistible. That’s how I’d describe my experience at Slant Theatre Project’s The Debate Plays. The actors appear to be having so much fun on stage that I’d challenge anyone to not have a good time at this show.
The Debate Plays are three playlets all that have a recurring love triangle. We start in the present and then flash back a hundred years or so and then we flash forward to the future. In the present, Courtney O’Connell has dumped her childhood boyfriend Scott Hooner (aka Scooner) for a decent fella named James. They are holding a debate over who is best for Courtney. The winner has the right to “claim” the girl, and the loser gets a restraining order. The catch is that the audience votes on who Courtney should be with because she can’t decide. The precedent for this debate was set way back in 1894 when a similar love triangle broke apart and one of the members went ballistic, shooting up the townspeople. So a law was passed that this tragedy should never happen again in Columbus, Nebraska (where all three playlets are set). The final flashforward finds us in a new debate with the same people and/or their offspring over the constitutionality of the law.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at a show. What makes this production stand out in my mind is that it’s not just funny writing or acting, it’s all the production aspects of the show that are funny. Okay, maybe the lighting wasn’t so funny—but the direction, the costumes, the sound/music, and of course the writing and acting all pulled together to make a hilarious package. In the first play (by far the funniest), it’s the quirky reactions and subtle facial expressions of the actors coupled with some very natural yet unpredictable dialogue that really cracked me up. Also, director Wes Grantom is brilliant at finding the right moments to push the situation to unexpected and comically contentious places. For example, by simply placing the two men fighting for the girl ridiculously close together, he creates pure comedy. He pushes the action into the audience and gives little blocking moments like the taller man lowering the microphone laughably low for the shorter man.
The second play finds the same actors in hoop skirts and silly fake mustaches. The men play the women and the woman plays the man in this prequel to the first play. Director Evan Cabnet lends this one an over-the-top melodramatic style. It’s quite funny through most of it, but the dialogue here does not pack the punch of the first piece. This one, however, has one of the oddest endings to a play I’ve yet seen. For some bizarre reason, the entire cast breaks into an air band performance of a Weezer song.
The final short is interesting in that it allows us to sort of see what happens to these characters, but it’s just not as entertaining as the two previous plays and that makes for an anti-climactic ending. I could have done without this one. In fact, the first play could easily stand alone.
Playwright Mat Smart is a gifted writer. He has an excellent ear for natural dialogue while at the same time he injects quirks and absurdities in just the right places. He also balances his comedy with just the right amount of drama. Just when I thought the play was going to be all laughs. he gave me something emotional. Not too emotional, mind you, but just enough. His pilot monologue is the encapsulation of almost every style in the play. It’s dramatic, funny, quirky and even a little absurd. It’s quite brilliant.
The actors all deserve a loud round of applause for their outstanding performances. They all take on several roles, creating distinct character traits for each. Jeff Galfer is just perfect in his role as Scooner. He balances sincerity and sloth in a character that you can’t help but like even though he’s kind of a jerk. Garrett Neergaard is a very versatile actor. His James was just endearing enough to make me vote for him. Chad Goodridge plays the mediator, among other roles, with natural grace and style. But it was Kathleen White who stole the night for me. She delivers the aforementioned pilot monologue with so much power and with so many idiosyncrasies that I have no doubt she is why it has stuck my head.
The Debate Plays is a fine example of what makes indie theatre a force that deserves more recognition. The members of Slant Theatre Project do it well and they have fun doing it. I hope this sort of theatre becomes more contagious.