THE CARPENTER – NEW DARK COMEDY OF ERRORS PREMIERING AT THE ALLEY THEATRE, HOUSTON, TX – COULD HAVE USED A BIT OF – RECONSTRUCTION

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, amusing and dark comedy of errors, Texas-style, which would have benefited from a couple more runs through the drafting process.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Carpenter, making its world premiere run now through February 10, 2019 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas is a clever but flawed play. Written by Houston’s own Rob Askins as part of the Alley’s All New Festival in 2017, the play is a loose — a very VERY loose version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper – though that is only my observation. I did not see that reference in any of the interviews with the playwright.

 

First let me say that the Alley Theatre is a GORGEOUS venue where there are NO BAD SEATS! And I admire the Alley for staging and lending so much time and effort to new innovative plays. So kudos and plaudits to one and all involved with this production.

The story is about two half-brothers who meet for the first time as adults in a bar. The older brother, Gene, is a hard drinking, womanizing, bad-decision-making ne’er do well who introduces himself to the audience Our Town Stage Manager-style at the beginning of the play with a soliloquy espousing his own personal, somewhat profane, world view. The younger brother, Dan, is an up and coming programmer about to make the sale of his life. Despite never having met they bear a significant resemblance in the way they look and dress and their personal preferences in beer. Dan lets slip he is getting married that weekend and with vague promises of getting together again some time makes  a hasty retreat. Gene, slyly winking to the audience, justifies his ominously referenced future actions with an analogy about the envy one primitive must feel for his sibling who has learned to climb, being able to thereby achieve a spot closer to the sun.

Gene’s predictable and unwanted appearance at the pre-wedding festivities in Dan’s soon-to-be in-laws, very posh, Dallas, Highland Park home, is compounded by Dan’s humiliation-inspired fabrications about Gene being the Carpenter who will build for his bride, Terry, a gazebo for the wedding.

I won’t tell more above the SPOILER warning sign because I don’t want to ruin the fun for those who want to be surprised, but I suspect Mr. Askins, to his credit, was informed in his plot choices by many of Shakespeare’s comedies of error and mistaken identities.

Before I launch into a Cinema-Sins style critique let me advise that The Carpenter IS a lot of fun and I enjoyed the romp, but was frustrated by the fact it could have been so much better.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

I understand the desire modern playwrights have to make cheap emphasis with expletives and even bawdy sexual references, but the plethora of them in this play is not only lazy writing and off putting, but undermines those moments when a carefully chosen profanity or innuendo might have had the impact the author was looking for. But by the time those chosen moments arrive we are numb to any effect.

The stage was gorgeous. I was not privy to the script so do not know how much of the stage craft was dictated by the playwright’s instructions and how much was the director’s responsibility. On first glance it was stunning. A bright white, elegantly appointed living room with an embarrassment of evidence that a wedding was being planned in a wealthy Texan home: couple photos and balloons, a stuffed paper mache ostrich and a box of stuffed white doves, and a large framed photo of their (probably prize winning) horse Bodacious. Large cushioned foot rests by a large sofa would serve as a collection spot for the actors to lounge and play on. And right in the middle was a dazzling gold festooned curved staircase leading up to an ample second floor. Eight openings in the stage, up and down stairs and into the audience area, provided an enormous amount of flexibility for the performers, which served well as the action heated up and the exits and entrances became flights and chases.

The trouble is that the staircase blocked a lot of the action. Had it been far downstage it would have served the same purpose but not gotten in the way. There is nowhere in the audience where some of the action wasn’t obscured, no matter how clever the blocking for the actors.

SERIOUS SPOILER

The mood throughout the play is slapstick humorous with a teensy touch of the sinister while promising that all will be well in the end – sort of like Noises Off meets Two Gentlemen From Verona. But nowhere in the play does the author or director prepare you for the sharp left turn into film noir, Agatha Christie territory it takes in the last five minutes. To its credit there is a Thornton Wilder touch of moralizing, tying Gene’s speech in the beginning to a warning about the inevitability of fate that comes, in one form or another, to us all – that we must be prepared because it can come when we least expect it. But in a turn as twisty as the elegant stairs in the Alley Theater itself, but more fitting to the middle of Deathtrap than the much lighter play The Carpenter leads us to believe it is, we suddenly jumped to the end of a far darker story. Kind of like finding out the comedian who you thought was playing a heart attack for laughs really — died. (Which actually happened to Dick Shawn).

But even this would have worked had the denouement occurred in the middle of the play with time to incorporate the event into the warp and woof of the story OR had there been any indication that one or the other of the brothers had had a darker past than was inferred. I, frankly, fully expected one more twist to rectify this contradiction in mood before blackout, but none came. Instead it was a payoff without adequate set up.

When you call something The Carpenter, especially when the main character wags on in a homiletic fashion, it is not unreasonable to expect a few Christian themes or at least a nod in that direction, but despite the backdrop of a marriage there was none. Even the ceremony was thrown at the couple by the bride’s best friend during a particularly ridiculous action scene as a dressed up civil ceremony with delusions of New Age druidism.

Then there’s Terry, the rich and indulged but confused and sweet fiancée who really only wants to love and be loved by Dan. But in the play’s final minutes, and without sufficient justification or provocation Terry goes from being like the loveable but ding batty Gracie Allen to Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd.

The reaction of Venus, Gene’s stripper girlfriend, to the climactic scene is uncharacteristically, but plot conveniently, bland, exiting without real purpose, leaving us wonder where the firebrand we initially met went.

While perhaps Mr. Askins is suggesting that we all wear masks under which are monsters, the transformation is unexpected, under prepped and jarring.

If it was supposed to be a comedy, the characters should have all received a certain justice. If a tragedy, then they all get some kind of comeuppance, even if that is death. But there was only a little of both and not enough of either to be satisfying.

There are also a LOT of “in-jokes” about Google in particular, the tech world in general and the current political scene, which will age very poorly. Granted, this kind of nod to a contemporary audience dates from Greek plays (Aristophanes’ ribald Lysistrata was written as a protest against what he saw as the waste of life in the Peloponnesian War), to Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers – whose song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” was titled as a lampoon of a notorious Hollywood coke dealer). But where those classics used such frippery as decoration, throw-away lines which a modern audience can ignore and still enjoy the play, Mr. Askins leans so heavily on current events that ticketholders 20 years from now may be scratching their heads in confusion at half of the jokes.

The acting was fun as Gene and Dan imitated the mannerisms and eccentricities of each other, first in jest and sarcasm and latter in more earnest. Everyone else was a broad caricature: Terry, the Texan equivalent of a Valley girl, Claire her promiscuous best friend decked out like a walking fashion extravaganza, Kip as Terry’s rich Texas father drunkenly shooting at the ceiling with his ever present oversized rifle, Steve as Dan’s best friend-promoter in his golf outfit-style mismatching clothes. They were funny and heroically gave it their all, but the script lent them insufficient material. (Upper left reading clockwise: Cass Morgan – Cheryl – Dan’s mom, Ken Wulf Clark – Dan, Wade McCollum – Gene, Jessica Savage – Claire, Buddy Haardt – Steve, T. Ryder Smith – Kip, Brooke Wilson – Venus, Valeri Mudel – Terry, Molly Carden – Dan’s down-to-Earth sister).

If I have mentioned a lot of other stories: Our Town, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap, it is because this play feels more derivative that it should have. It is as though Mr. Askins did not have the courage of his fundamentally interesting convictions and hid behind a lot of references. That is a shame because I believe he had something fairly important to say – that life is short and death will one day come for all of us. But his heavy handed awkward treatment of this message got a bit ….. buried, if you’ll excuse the pun.

While I was glad I went and it IS worth the ticket price, I think Mr. Askins has promise but it was not completely …. nailed down… in The Carpenter.

THE WEEK OF – A CRASS ADAM SANDLER MOVIE WITH A GEM AT ITS HEART

SHORT TAKE:

Adam Sandler semi-slapstick about a working-stiff middle class Dad trying to provide the kind of wedding for his daughter which will impress the family of his wealthy son-in-law to be.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Only for adults and then only for those who do not take offense at tasteless humor, raunchy sight gags, strippers, or bad language.

LONG TAKE:

The pickings were very thin this week at the movie theater so I decided to think outside the box and try a Netflix original.

There's an old Jewish folk tale called "It Could Always be Worse" wherein a poor farmer, grieved that his house was too small and his pantry too bare, seeks advice from his Rabbi. The Rabbi advises him to invite his lazy brother to come visit and open his house to his obnoxious neighbors and demanding friends. Reluctantly the farmer went home and told his wife, who, desperate to cheer her husband up, agreed. Soon every room in the house was taken up with noisy people who raided their pantry and slept in their beds and on their sofas and sprawled on their floor. Soon losing his mind the farmer returned to the Rabbi.

This time the Rabbi shocked the farmer by advising he bring all of his animals into the house as well – the chickens, the goats, the cow, the family dog, and all the cats. Soon even the obnoxious neighbors were complaining about the crowding and having their toes stepped on by cow hooves, the mooing and the barking in the middle of the night, and the smell.

After a full week the farmer was at his wits end and more miserable than he was before. Angrily, the farmer returned to the Rabbi who simply smiled and said now go throw everyone and everything out. Send your neighbors back to their own homes, kick your brother out, and put the animals back in the barn.

After sweeping up behind all of their departed guests the farmer and his wife discovered, much to their astonishment, how much bigger their house was, and how much more food they had.

At the height of the Rabbi's lesson for the farmer, while the house was full of neighbors and relatives and animals, Kirby, the visiting father of the groom, in the movie The Week Of, would have noticed little difference between staying at the farmer's house or staying at the home of Kenny, the father of the bride.

SPOILERS

In the premise of The Week Of, Kenny, played by Adam Sandler, is a working stiff who makes a very modest living bringing dilapidated hotels up to passing health inspector levels. Despite his limited resources, he is determined to pay for his oldest daughter's wedding without the proffered help of the much wealthier Kirby, played by Chris Rock.

Unable to provide adequate housing for the multitude of guests and finding the hotel completely unsuitable despite his best efforts, many of the relatives on both sides end up staying at his modest-sized home. Amongst the participants are Seymour (Jim Barone – a real double amputee) his uncle, Noah his emotionally fragile cousin fresh out of rehab, Charles (Steve Buscemi) his raunchy cousin, loud obnoxious elderly deaf ladies and the monster sized German Shepherd owned by one of his visiting kin.

I normally do not watch this kind of movie and likely would have turned it off had I not been planning to review it. So watching to the end, imagine my shock to discover a tiny gem buried in the bottom of this pond full of less than subtle sex jokes and caricatures.

In classic Adam Sandler comic style, there's something to offend everyone. Sandler and Robert Smigel, the screenwriters, make fun of Jewish culture, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, and the elderly. It's hard to tell which is more cringey, the often crude and tasteless jokes or the fact that Chris Rock plays a straight man and is old enough to be someone who has a groom-aged son. But somehow, The Week Of still manages to make all these characters approachable, even likeable, giving each moments that makes them relatable and human. Part of it, I think, is that even though the situations make fun of these vulnerable and sometimes inherently ridiculous people, Adam Sandler's Kenny treats them all with genuine affection and respect.

At different points in the movie, Kenny, literally, carries his legless Uncle Seymour around. Kenny never acts as though it is a burden. And this becomes an interesting analogy for the entire movie. Despite Kenny’s lack of financial resources, despite his pride, and despite his occasionally bad judgment, everyone looks to Kenny whenever there is a problem. He is the one with the heart to usually do what he genuinely believes is the right thing for his family, has the cleverness to get it accomplished, and the determination to see it through to the end no matter how ridiculous some of the plans are. It eventually becomes obvious that it is not just Seymour he cheerfully carries on his willing back.

In a side note, despite the fact the story pivots around an interracial marriage, absolutely NO references are made to this, cliche or otherwise, and refreshingly, race is the ONLY thing about which Sandler does not shark up a cheap laugh. The race of the two families ends up merely being a convenience for the audience to help keep track of which of the dozens of characters are likely to be from which side of which family – like wearing different jerseys at a sports event or using shirts versus skins at a pickup game of basketball.

Chris Rock's character, Kirby, is an extremely successful cardiac surgeon who lives out of very swanky hotels with a succession of mistresses. Kenny on the other hand has three kids who he adores and dotes on, but for whom he can provide "only" a middle-class lifestyle. Kirby's life is reflected in the swanky hotels he stays in, his clean, quiet, organized, unencumbered, glass and steel life without distractions. Kirby's life, on the other hand, is cluttered, messy, noisy, and full of humanity, conversation, hugs, arguments, interactions and affection.

Kenny is always there, always in the mix, always doing his best and keeping a calm, optimistic perspective on even the wildest moments. So – despite all of the epic fails in Kenny's attempts to provide for his daughter's wedding, despite: the leaky ballroom, the poor choice of a magician to entertain the guests, using his 11 year old nephew as a wedding reception DJ, feeling shown up by the sumptuous wedding rehearsal dinner provided by Kirby, the crude bachelor party at a stripper trampoline exhibit, the death of one of the guests and a fire – it is Kirby who ultimately feels both overwhelmed and outclassed by the modestly resourced Kenny.

In one example, representatives of both families meet at the emergency room as a result (trying not to spoil TOO much) of one of the "high jinx". Tyler (Roland Burch, III), the groom, feels responsible and Kenny explains to him how the outcome would have been worse had the group not done what they did, then embraces him comfortingly. Kirby can be seen in the background watching this exchange, and in a lovely but easily missed moment, Kirby realizes he is the outsider – that his son sought advice naturally and first, not from him, but from his future father-in-law, who seems to understand how everyone ticks.

In a funny repeat motiff, whenever Kenny and his wife Sarah (Allison Strong, who played a very strange secretary in another and similarly themed Sandler movie, Click) disagree, both put on a happy face, retreat to their bedroom and audibly yell at each other, believing no one can hear them. One of the cousins asks one of Kenny’s younger children if they are getting a divorce. With the exhausted confidence that every child should have in their parents' marriage, he says, "They NEVER do."

The wealthy Kirby ends up: sleeping on the floor, suffering the indignities of living with about 50 strangers at Kenny's house, being made fun of during a Parcheesi game in Kenny's asbestos infected basement, and is conscripted to help catch bats in one of Kenny's crazy plans to save face. Kirby as a result, comes to understand that the sum of all this lunacy is a close-knit family that will suffer through and with each other because of a love based on a lifetime of intimacy. Kirby threw money at every problem his family encountered. Kenny throws himself into the line of fire whenever someone in his family needed him.

Kirby comes to realize that Kenny is indeed the much richer man. Realizing what a bad father and poor husband he has been Kirby apologizes to his ex-wife, begins to make amends with his children for his neglect, and looks forward to spending real time with his grandchildren. It’s a little like Mary Poppins for the Zohan crowd.

And meanwhile all this is set against some appropriately chosen Billy Joel songs. The ending genuinely had me choked up, and not just because I was sick to death of all the bad jokes. I can forgive a lot in a movie if it makes a good end. And I have to say that in spite of the raunchy humor, the borderline offensive caricatures, and the repetitive visual jokes – for the sake of the movie’s final couple of scenes ….. all is forgiven.