"Combine alcohol and loneliness, and you do a lot of things you never thought you'd do." It seems little more that an innocuous adage when tossed out in the first scene of Traveling Companions, the first effort by playwright Kathleen Reynolds. But after two-and-a-half hours of revelations and temptations, the phrase resounds as the central credo for the five lives bound together in this decidedly dark comedy.
The script treats several weeks in the life of department-store employee Kate (Heather Muir) as she confronts her history as a serious IV-drug user and conflicted romantic dilemmas with old flame Julien (Christopher Cantwell) and on-and-off fling Ben (Robert Steffen). Also, roommate Marlene (Vivian Nesbitt) has just discovered she is two months pregnant out of wedlock, and younger brother Will (Michael Stone) has left grad school to crash on her couch after a nasty breakup with his boyfriend.
However, Ms. Reynolds has chosen to present these potentially challenging intrigues wrapped in a candy shell, and events unfold with the same predictable punchlines as an episode of Friends. The play feels choppy throughout its string of eleven scenes that often resolve superficially, and grave issues are oversimplified by incomplete execution. Nevertheless, Ms. Reynolds displays a wry wit and good ear for naturalistic dialogue which makes the script enjoyable despite its unachieved potential.
The Phil Bosakowski Theatre accentuated the positives, and director David DeBeck fashioned a fine production. Peter Estella's set convincingly transformed the small black box into Kate and Marlene's cluttered apartment with careful attention to detail, including functional light switches and signs visible in the hallway. Similarly, the lighting design by Judith M. Daitsman incorporated subtleties that maintained the production's overall realism, such as shadows cast by window panes. Even an onstage TV set gave off its expected glow. Seamas Rutherford did his best to fill the dramatic gap between scenes with well-selected music occasionally framed with a hint of irony, notably the rendition of "Makin' Whoopie" at the conclusion of the first act.
The company presented its best acting in intimate two-person moments rather than larger ensemble scenes when individual players felt consistently isolated from one another. Ms. Muir gave an understated but solid performance as Kate, though it seemed difficult to gauge the nature of her former experiences with drugs from her immediate personality. Just so, Mr. Cantwell's performance was engaging, but one would never guess the character Julien were a painter if he hadn't held a brush in one scene. As the younger love interest Ben, Mr. Steffen capitalized marvelously upon sheepish smile and easy-going mien - it seemed a shame his character did not interact more widely in the drama - and Mr. Stone's portrayal of Kate's mopey gay brother Will refreshingly resisted falling into stereotypes and was rather endowed with an honest and universal humanity.
But without question, Ms. Nesbitt was the central delight of the production as roommate Marlene, who wears a different hair color every week - though we're reminded "red fits her personality." From her hilarious entrance decked out in Jackie O glasses, to the moment when she admits her most intimate fears, Ms. Nesbitt led the company both comically and dramatically.
The plot ultimately settles for cliches and convenient resolutions; with such a talented cast as Traveling Companions' one can't help but wish the destination were somewhat more profound.
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Copyright 1998 Andrew Eggert