Monday, January 30, 2012

THEATER: Advance Man

Photo/Deborah Alexander
Given that it recently closed after a brief run at the out-of-the-way, yet extremely charming, Secret Theater, you probably missed Mac Rogers's Advance Man. And ironically, though this review will ultimately recommend the show, it's probably for the best. You see, as the first part of "The Honeycomb Trilogy" trilogy (Parts II and III are due in early April and mid-June), Advance Man is stuck doing all of the groundwork for what promise to be more dynamic successors.

Even the plot is literally mired in gearing up for the future: Bill (Sean Williams) was the first man to walk on Mars three years ago, but quit being an astronaut so that he and his surviving crewmates -- bad boy Raf (Abraham Makany), good girl Belinda (Rebecca Comtois), and logical Valerie (Shaun Bennet Wilson) -- could better prepare their families for what they found there. The secrecy leads to some tension between Bill, his wife, Amelia (Kristen Vaughan), and his children: the artistic and soft son, Abbie (David Rosenblatt), and the tough and intelligent daughter, Ronnie (Becky Byers), especially after the interference of a private investigator (Amanda Duarte) forces them to accelerate their plans. There's also -- with some shades of the little-seen film The Astronaut's Wife -- the matter of what exactly happened to the once-vivacious Conor (Jason Howard), another member of Bill's crew, who has been so traumatized by the Mars voyage that he now lives with Bill, haltingly and hauntingly standing in his favorite corner, a bundle of nerves with a vocabulary of twenty or so words. (Shades of the little-seen film The Astronaut's Wife.)

It's a lot to digest, which is why it's for the best that most of the awkward "drama" that Rogers has cooked up to flavor this dry yet semi-necessary exposition seems fully out of the way by the end of Advance Man, paving the way for what seem like far more promising sequels. Sensitive Abbie won't have to spend all his time drawing pictures of aliens anymore, and rebellious Ronnie (the hero of this play, thanks especially to Byers's fiery presence) will hopefully find someone more suitable to snog than the creepy Raf. Nobody will have to justify themselves to Kip (Brian Silliman), a rich and literally star-struck investor in Bill's "environmental" development. Amelia will now have a genuine reason for conflict with her husband -- not just her fears of an affair (which she, admittedly, plays to the hilt). And most importantly, Conor, sidelined for so much of the play -- although in a way that still shows Jason Howard's terrific physical control (as in Rogers's last foray into science fiction, Universal Robots) -- may have the opportunity to take a more central role. Even if Rogers chooses to jump generations into the future, scrapping the characters he has only now honed, he'll at least be out of the slow, swampy mires of his Florida setting, and credibility won't be such a sticking point. (Unlikely as these particular astronauts are, their ability to smuggle samples out of NASA -- let alone to form a business using classified information -- is what's truly unbelievable.)

"The Honeycomb Trilogy" is ambitious, and perhaps Advance Man too often gets ahead of itself, but in response to its preparatory mantra -- "Are you ready for the future?" -- I find myself as excited for the uncertainty of what's to come as I am unaffected by the predictability of what's already happened.

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