A frequent pitfall for playwrights that write comedies is a temptation to wind things up at the end with some meaningful reform for the comics that turns them into serious human beings.
Most often those attempts end up being sappy and sending an audience home with decidedly mixed feelings wondering whether they were supposed to be laughing all that time.
Nothing like that plagues "Things Being What They Are," the Wendy MacLeod play that opened over the weekend at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
The play is about two men: Bill, a moderately nerdy, very responsible married man who has just moved into a new condo, and Jack, his neighbor who makes John Belushi look positively civilized. The not-so-delicate dance these two strangers perform on their way to friendship is filled with seriously funny stuff, as well as a meaningful nugget or two.
Along the way, Jack – who is divorced and more than slightly melancholy about the whole thing – shows that macho wisecracks help him cope with the unfilled moments of his life. He arrives in a flurry of funny on the day Bill is moving in. He helps himself to beer and spends a big part of his evening commenting on every facet of the life of the man he has just met.
Bill is initially both flustered and more than a bit put off by Jack’s assault, and he tries to find a way to extricate himself from what has become an uncomfortable situation. Eventually, like all good relationship plays, Jack lures Bill into his world. Bill promises to pick Jack up from the hospital when he goes for a biopsy.
Bill forgets and Jack’s extended monologue explaining how he got home by calling his ex-wife at Home Depot and then riding back in the brand new truck belonging to her boyfriend, who is in the back with the new $1,000 set of patio furniture while Jack sits next to his wife in the cab, hoping for some contact between their knees and how everything is going smoothly until Jack takes a corner too fast and the boyfriend ("his name is Ralph but she calls him Rafe") is thrown out, only to land on Jack’s car and break the sunroof. The speech is almost too funny to listen to and could be a death trap in the hands of an unskilled actor.
Fortunately, Dan Katula is the absolute opposite of unskilled. He proves with this performance that he is one of the most versatile actors in this town.
Last year, he was horrifying as the abusive husband in "The Clockmaker" at Next Act. In this play, he’s a cuddly scrounge who pretends to have wisdom while admitting to his inability to understand women.
Comedy depends, in large measure, on timing. And Katula, under the wonderful direction of Michael Cotey, is a master. He knows when to jump on a line and when to let it breathe, all to magnificent effect.
Ryan Schabach is the perfect foil for Katula. With his narrow frame and slightly nerdish manner, the contrast between him and the buffalo that is Jack is striking.
Some of the physical comedy is a little stale, like the two exchanging high-fives and Bill wincing in mock pain. But those moments are rare, and the two men gradually and grudgingly move to a spot where their relationship seems to be the only one that matters. Bill has been cheated on by his actress wife, but they have ostensibly made up, and he anxiously awaits her arrival at their new place.
There is nothing sappy about the ending of this play that sees these two men headed off to dinner together, thoughts of the women in their lives left in the dust of the Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza.
There must be a word here for Cotey, who has joined the ranks of the hot young directors in Milwaukee. He’s a wonderful actor, but I think his true calling rests in the director's chair. He has a sensibility of events and a grasp of storytelling that usually takes much longer to develop. He has guided a play that has a million laughs and a couple of choke-up moments.
Just the way a play like this ought to be.
"Things Being What They Are" runs through Dec. 15. Information on performances and tickets can be found at chamber-theatre.com.
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