by Michael Bowen
The whole of Months on End is less than some of its parts. In fact, when you calculate the parts' total in the Civic's Studio Theater production (through Oct. 25), the sum is incomplete, not solid. That's too bad, because Craig Pospisil's comedy features some good scenes and moments of insight.
There are twelve scenes, in fact -- one for each month in the year surrounding Ben and Phoebe's wedding. The character connections are the stuff of yuppie soap opera, but they're written with charm. Phoebe (Kate Houston) is depressed because her career has tanked, she doesn't really get along with her parents and she's not entirely sure she wants to marry Ben (Paul Villabrille). He's a nice-enough guy, but inept in the kitchen and way-overboard obsessed with the Beatles. Phoebe's little sister Heidi (Mary Stiller) is sarcastic and (even worse) an over-achiever. Phoebe's friend Elaine (Kerry Greeson), luckless with men, finds a good one in Walter (Mark Hodgson) -- except that he turns out to be going through a messy divorce. Walter's brother Nick (Damon Mentzer) faces rejection by his fianc & eacute;e Paige (Nancy Gasper), who has her own problems. The two brothers have a buddy named Tony (Kevin Benson), who mistakes Phoebe for his blind date, though she's going to walk out at least temporarily on Ben, who's distracted by sadness. And so on.
Pospisil's resume is filled with lots of monologues and short one-acts. He writes wise and concise scenes, pursuing such matters as getting past dejection, upending gender stereotypes, nurturing old animosities and the self-validating quality of being flirted with. He trusts his audience to figure out the characters' interconnections on their own.
The first scene that roused the audience on Saturday night was Mary Stiller's turn as the valedictorian at her college graduation. The ol' drop-the-note cards confusion at the start of the scene wasn't promising, but Stiller makes that the occasion for an improvised rant on behalf of the children of baby boomers. The younger generation is angry, it seems, because their parents "took all the good drugs, had all the good sex and then made all the good money."
The July scene has two very different brothers and their slow-witted friend ogling girls at the beach. The bikini-watching, however typical and predictable, develops nicely into a discussion of the little, non-obvious things that men find sexy in women. It's the kind of conversation that a lot of heterosexual men would probably like to pursue, but never have. Hodgson and Mentzer in particular do a great job of appearing to be so thoughtful that maybe even some long-held opinions might change. (Out in the audience, too.)
This playwright trusts playgoers, moreover, with the awareness that neat resolutions aren't in many people's futures. By the end, we know pretty well what the possibilities are for the central couple, Ben and Phoebe, and Walter has seemed pretty self-assured from the start. But the other seven players -- several of them in bit parts, appearing only in a couple of scenes -- seem to meander in and out of the mosaic. Who knows how any of our lives will turn out?
Several of the performances turn out very well. Hodgson, as Walter, conveys buoyant optimism that stays grounded in reality. As Elaine, Greeson really does seem disconsolate when it comes to this dating thing. In Nick's three scenes, Mentzer balances anger and humor, whether getting caught out as a sexist pig or a lousy gift-giver; he provides a nicely rounded portrait. As Ben, Paul Villabrille is good at displaying the range from immaturity to maturity, first whining over lost toys, then showing wisdom beyond his years during a somber episode.
The rest of the cast's neutral acting, however, deflated some scenes' impact. A chance meeting wasn't as rapid-fire witty or flattering (to both characters) as it might have been. The in-the-bride's-dressing-room scene right before Ben and Phoebe's wedding falls flat because of some muffled lines and slow pacing. Laugh lines were mistimed and lost: a faux pas about a painting in the first scene, an analogy between marriage and a crashing airplane in the wedding scene.
Because the play's structure features 12 monthly scenes, we know (if we've been counting) that the Walter-and-Nick scene in the airport must have them traveling home for Christmas. We go in knowing that this will be the finale -- and yet, even then, the play ends anticlimactically, with the audience not really knowing whether the evening is over. The reconciliation between the brothers rests on a confrontation that was resolved beforehand, and that was back in July; there's not enough conflict for the note of peacemaking to seem prominent. That's the writer's fault. But the ending, without any emotional signposts, seems aimless -- and that's director John G. Phillips' fault.
Because it calls for 10 cast members and polished production values, the future of Months on End in today's cash-strapped professional theater world seems bleak. It deserves a better fate, and a better production than this. At least both the playwright and Phillips' cast are trying to illuminate our shifting relationships. But good parts don't necessarily yield a satisfying whole.
Publication date: 10/09/03