Monday, April 26, 2010

Noah's Arkansas

If you believe in such things, Noah built the ark just big enough for two of every species. Doing more than that would be redundant. Admittedly, Jerrod Bogard's new play Noah's Arkansas has nothing to do with animals, but then again, it's got nothing to do with religion, either: it's a waste of a clever title. What is similar between the two is that Bogard has taken a potentially decent one-act between a grandson being called upon to help his grandfather commit suicide, and he has flooded it with a series of hackneyed scenes that dilute the play beyond all meaning. Moreover, each of the three acts of this show is tonally different (more like a triptych than a cohesive whole), which makes it hard to get a handle on the actors, something that's exacerbated by the tendency of the cast to overact. (As one puts it, "We're stuck here on Jerry Springer here, aren't we?")

At first, Noah's Arkansas seems to be about poor, dim-witted Wayne (Justin Ness) and his second wife, Lizzy (Kristin Skye Hoffmann), a good woman, but not a patient one. They're more than a bit of an odd couple--the actors have no chemistry, even when flirting--and their bickering has more than a bit of an edge to it ("I was just sittin' here wish'n for a cold beer" "I was just wishin' you were George Clooney"). But they're together, waiting for Wayne's irresponsible ex-wife to drop his teenage son, Michael (Michael Komala), off for the summer. However, that would be too simple (read: too short) of a scene, so instead, Wayne's father Lester (Erik Frandsen) makes a cameo (a sort of foreshadowing that there's something good to come), and then Michael runs off--just long enough to get two cookie-cutter cops, Tom and Tammy (Bennett W. Harrell and Judy Merrick) out to the house. These are unflattering, unrevealing scenes, especially since Bogard's script stresses that these are "real people, and not caricatures of what some might call 'trailer trash.'" Of course, the fact that Bogard needs to say that at all ends up proving just the opposite--especially under Neil Fennell's broad and clunky direction: this is a far cry from Sam Shepard.

By the second act, Bogard is back to his strong suit--a two-hander that cuts out the forced comedy and focuses on the strained relationship between Michael and Wayne. Though the scene starts out roughly--a bloodied Wayne waits in the dark, with a gun, for Michael--and though it dramatically cheats, turning Wayne into a more forceful and steady character for the purposes of this scene, it works. It works even in spite of Komala's hand-wringing performance, the sort that would put Tennessee Williams to shame: "Your son's been institutionalized. Is that dramatic? It was like a summer camp, but for mental kids." It works, finally, once Wayne starts connecting with Michael--and that's what's so sorely missing from most of the play. His bullheaded expectations of social life--jocks and nerds--are upset by Michael's goth appearance, but even he has to admit that if his son were gay (he's not), he'd still love him.

Unfortunately, the third act of Noah's Arkansas is the most unsteady of all, staggering between the manic aimlessness of the first and the seriousness of the second, and Bogard bites off way more than he, or the audience, can handle, constructing a final scene that shoehorns two different scenes together. It's a clear sign that Bogard's grasping for meaning, trying to use a structural shift to convince us that the weight of each character's words, or the parallels between generations in this family, are far more significant than they are. And, as if there weren't already enough examples of incompetence, Bogard literally uses his two police characters to arrest the action, handcuffing characters just before they can do anything dramatic. The quiet scene between Lester and Michael, bonding at the middle of a dried-up floodplain, is the highlight of the play--not just because Frandsen is a terrifically wry old man, but because Komala, at last, plays it calm.

Ultimately, there's something else to be learned from that biblical story (one which, again, has about as much to do with this play as its title). The next time Bogard opts to build an ark--something capable of carrying and transporting characters--he should make sure he's standing on solid ground first. A very few of the leaps in Noah's Arkansas are admirable, but too often, he's just splashing around in the water, throwing up whatever planks of scenes are at hand.