You can’t mix commerce with art,” a character says in the new play The Funny Thing Is, I Still Love This Place. I’m not at all sure that’s true (there are many examples that immediately come to mind that belie that claim) though the characters seem to believe it with all their hearts. A more important question might perhaps be, “What if you have neither commerce nor art? What then?” This is the question posed again and again by this piece, though it comes up with no good answers. The small audience on Friday night certainly spoke to the issue of not making any money on theater, and the work the audience saw has a ways to travel before it can be safely filed under the definition of art.
That’s not to say that, with enough workshopping, TFTI,ISLTP won’t ever get there. There are more than a handful of good ideas here that might eventually add up to a gripping play, which ran at Stageworks last weekend and was penned by local playwright and longtime Creative Loafing theater critic Mark E. Leib (whom I have never met).
The question of whether to make money so that you can live comfortably or do something that feeds your soul is, if not a terribly original idea, at least one that bears closer examination. The problem is that the “commerce vs. art” argument in the play is stacked in favor of the artistic side, and the foregone, preaching-to-the-choir conclusion is therefore writ large all over it. The artists are noble and principled, the commerce folks are greedy, materialistic doofuses, and never the twain shall meet — at least not without a healthy dose of conflict.
The conflict starts almost immediately in Leib’s play, and the doofuses are front and center. Wallace (Greg Thompson) and Astrid (Elizabeth G. Fendrick) are a well-off couple preparing for an evening with their daughter Vanna (Alison Burns) and her new beau Teddy (Chris Jackson). The opening scene has a certain Christopher Durang feeling to it, since Wallace and Astrid’s obsessions with possessions and their cost (every item they mention has a hefty price tag to it) is prime fodder for ridicule. Durang’s characters, however, are usually redeemed by finding themselves in situations beyond their control. Leib’s characters, on the other hand, delight in where they are and remain steadfastly unapologetic for their dismissive condescension, which kicks into overdrive when they meet Teddy, who works in a book store so he can write poetry.
Unfortunately, Teddy, at least as written here, is deserving of their scorn, since he is a pretty dreadful poet — “You are my precious flower” is just one example of his material — and after a while, despite the best efforts of Chris Jackson (who gives one of the most realistic performances in the show), you just want him to shut up with the banality and get a real job. An eleventh-hour monologue where it appears that he might be turning into one of “them” is, unfortunately, some of the best writing in the show and makes it seem as if he has, ironically, become a better poet by turning to the dark side.
Alison Burns, who has done some lovely work in the past, is stuck with a character that is a bit of a cipher, turning this way and that in the wind, depending on which side of the fence she needs to occupy for any particular scene. However, Jamie Jones as Victor, the rich snob the parents enlist to lure her away from her “tramp” of a fiancé, is a lot of fun, intoning brand names like “Lamberghini” and “Bergdorf Goodman” as if he were suggesting a different sexual position. Thompson is capable as always as Wallace, but his wife Astrid, played to great effect by Fendrick, is the real wild card here, the character with the only real dramatic arc. Starting out superficial, she nonetheless sees the error of her ways when it comes to her daughter and is only guilted into silence by a (rather weak) revelation from her past with Wallace in a penultimate scene that feels like it’s starting to dip its toes into Albee territory.
The set is functional, though the play takes place in so many places and therefore comprised several, mostly short, scenes that the show — which times out at 75 minutes — is mostly all chop and little forward momentum. It therefore begs the question — could it have taken place all in one place during one long scene? I think, with the exception of the coda, it could. Imagine all of this happening in one evening during the course of a dinner party during which relationships are destroyed and secrets are revealed. I know, it reminds again of Albee. But one could do far worse modeling one’s work after a playwright who managed quite nicely to mix commerce with art.