If you weren’t familiar with the body of work playwright Monica Bauer has produced, upon hearing the title of her latest show, BALLS! The Testosterone Plays, it would be very easy to mistakenly dismiss this as a night of 2 one-act plays that do nothing more than skewer fifty percent of the population. Delve a littler deeper, and examine the titles of the shorts – Two Men Walked Into A Bar and Made For Each Other and this notion might be even further cemented. After all, Two Men Walked Into A Bar is as ubiquitous a set up as “How Many Actors Does It Take To Change A Light Bulb?” (Answer: Two. One to stand on a chair and change it and one to say “I wish I was up there!”)
If you ARE familiar with playwright Monica Bauer, however, you know that an evening of fluffy, mindless confection is the last thing you’re going to get from her testosterone plays. For while she’s got a breezy way with humor and can evenly lace it throughout her stories, this is a woman whose plays about men pack as strong a punch as anything done by Mamet or Labute. If you want to sip on a cocktail that’s sweet and full of empty calories, you’re clearly walking into the wrong bar.
I’m no stranger to Monica Bauer or her work – I was lucky enough to catch an earlier incarnation of Made For Each Other (the 2nd of the 2 plays featured in Balls!) during the Planet Connections Festivity and was left mesmerized by how effortlessly Bauer was able to weave a tale of such humor and love into a tale of such darkness and tragedy. Bauer is that rare playwright who is able to ease her story out like setting a kite to the wind; she masterfully paces the arc of the story and the tone of the dialogue so that what starts off as a merry little bob on a summer breeze is soon soaring strongly – pulling you off you feet with the force of it.
Before a word is even spoken in Two Men Walked Into A Bar you know that something’s brewing. After all, does anything good ever happen in Mobile, Alabama at 3 am in when the only patrons left drinking are two Marine veterans of two different wars? Aaron Gonzalez plays Bill, the younger of the two vets who recently completed his tour. He’s tight-lipped about his past, and plays his story close to the vest. While he doesn’t mind sharing a drink, he’d rather just leave it at that. John (Nick Ruggeri) is the complete opposite. He’s a gregarious sort, ready to keep the drinks flowing in order to loosen up the tongue of his young friend. John is always ready to try to find a common connection: whether it’s the Marines, the fact that women just exist to screw up your life and spend your money, or how good it is to knock back a few Johnny Walker Reds as the night draws on. Bartender, Franklin (John Fico) commiserates with John about woman (They need their mouths sewn shut and their ears popped open) as well as the sentiment that a little more money to clear up a little of his gambling debts wouldn’t be a bad thing.
However, as so many things that transpire at 3am – this meeting isn’t as innocent as it seems. There’s an undercurrent of uneasiness that starts off slowly and builds until the tension explodes out of the characters and onto the stage with such force that props are flung aside furiously and those in the audience are left cowering at the level of anger and violence which erupts. Suffice it to say – there’s three sides to every story. Your side, his side, and the truth. In the case of these two men who walked into this particular bar, the challenge is how to arrive at the truth without unnecessary bloodshed. As one marine vet from one senseless war says to the other “This wouldn’t be the first mission that starts out about justice and turns out to be about something else.”
Both Gonzalez and Ruggeri do an amazing job at keeping a layer of anger, distrust and uneasiness right below a thin veneer of good-ole-boy Southern camaraderie so that even when things seem to be going well you know that this is simply the calm before the storm. Under John D. FtizGibbon’s tight direction, there are no wasted moments in this play that tells a surprisngly rich and powerful tale for one that clocks in at about 30 minutes.
Alternately, Made For Each Other is a quieter yet no less powerful piece. As I mentioned, I’d already seen this before at Planet Connections, but it made such an impression on me that I was eager to see it again. Actually written by Bauer for the actor John Fico, this is a solo show that does what so few solo show out there do – tells the story of four distinct people with four paths that are ever-widening, rather than the story of one person with other characters who make an appearance and then are gone. This makes the story much grander and more resonant, while also giving Fico a format to actually embody all the characters, rather than step in and out of them. It makes for a much more character-driven piece.
Once again, Fico proved what a versatile, charming, magnetic presence he is on stage as he brings to life the tale of two men who meet, fall in love, decide to marry . . . all while the ghosts of their loved ones watch from the side lines coaxing, cheer-leading and deepening the history. As a simple missed note becomes a jarring dissonance your heart just breaks for this couple you so want to see succeed.
As I said in my review earlier this year:
Made for Each Other starts off as one story and slowly becomes another. It also starts off solidly in the genre of comedy . . . almost a stand up act . . . and brings the lights down on a heartfelt drama. Bauer has written four characters who are not just solid, but appealing – every time the light dims on one of them you’re sorry to see them go . . . but then you are delighted to see the next character unfolding before you.
Under John FitzGibbon’s direction, Fico plays this story as if he were four distinct people, and at no point do you ever wonder who you’re looking at. He has a gift of using changes in his body language remarkably well – not just relying on vocal calisthenics or props to cue the audience. Fico’s use of stance, tics, gestures and even habits give each character a uniqueness and to watch Fico transform from one to the other is a joy.
Made For Each Other is a gift all around – to an actor, and to an audience.
I couldn’t recommend BALLS! more strongly. This is the kind of theatre that will thrill you, make you laugh, make you think and make you nod in recognition. Give yourself an early holiday present and go see the show before it closes.
~~~BALLS! the testosterone plays of Monica Bauer Directed by John D. FitzGibbon WorkShop Theater’s Main Stage 312 W. 36th, 4th Floor New York, NY 10018 Playing through December 05, 2010 3:00 PM Click Here to purchase tickets