Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Redtwist Theatre presents REVERB.
A few years ago, on a weekend budget cruise to Mexico, I ran into someone who looked familiar in the free sushi line. He was a character actor I had enjoyed in numerous indie films and the dearly departed HBO drama, Six Feet Under. I decided to approach him and just tell him I was a fan, and he shook his head and said something like, “Thanks, but when you work with Alan Ball or Neil LaBute, it’s all there in the script. It makes my job pretty easy.”
The hard-working cast of Reverb have no such luxuries. Presenting the Chicago premiere of a work by New York enfant terrible Leslye Headland (Bachlorette), Reverb hits more than a few bum notes. For starters, Reverb is incorrectly billed in its promotional materials as being “darkly comic.” Whether this fault lies with Headland or director Jonathan Berry is hard to parse without reading the script, but likely it’s a bit of both. The central conflict: A profoundly unhappy but talented rocker named Dorian and his girlfriend/muse June have a hot-and-cold romantic relationship that is stoked whenever she encourages him to slap her around.
Can this material be humorous? The degree of difficulty here is considerable, but perhaps if played very broadly this could work – or in an edgy movie when we’re a safe distance from the action. But staging this material with full conviction in a black box theater where we can almost feel every slap and we see dark bruises all over the back of June (Mary Williamson, giving it 100%) is just too intense for laughs.
Because this content is so dark and heavy, it’s difficult to follow Reverb’s tonal shifts as we get moments that clearly are intended for comic relief, such as when we’re introduced to Dorian’s goofy ex-bandmates (Chris Chmelik and Nick Vidal) who come over to their old frontman’s crumbling apartment and battle him in Guitar Hero while subtly begging him to get the band back together.
More successful are scenes featuring Ashley Neal as Ivy, a self-important music blogger and emerging talent exec who wears designer headphones and Princess Leia hair buns. Neal delivers a very funny update of a Valley Girl with perfect SoCal voice inflections. Neal’s Ivy is far from vacuous though, but instead breathtakingly cynical. Upon hearing Dorian’s brilliant new music and later hearing that he’s feeling depressed, Ivy thinks out loud about how great it’d be if he’d “Jeff Buckley it” so she could promote these gorgeous songs of a recently deceased genius.
There are a multitude of these knowing musical references and factoids sprinkled throughout this play that can range from very obscure (Jon Brion) to semi-obscure (Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God,” Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”), but clearly reflect the love Heyland has for music. On the occasion of this press opening, however, I’m not sure most of these references registered with an audience that had an approximate mean of 63 years old – particularly an extended impression Nick Vidal does of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis capped by a reenactment of his suicide by hanging. Unless perhaps Heyland wrote that into the script knowing full well that on many nights the majority of a typical theater audience would have no clue who Ian Curtis was? That actually would be “darkly comic.” Hmm. I’ll have to keep thinking about that.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
At Redtwist Theater, 1044 W. Bryan Mawr
Written by Leslye Headland
Directed by Jonathan Berry
Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 3pm
Through June 23
Buy tickets at redtwist.org or call (773) 728-7529.
Photo credit: Photo by Jan Ellen Graves