Aaah the 70s! Bow chikka bow bow! Remember that decade? All the Pez we dispensed, the Kool Aid we over-sweetened (to the horror of the man himself i.e. the Pitcher-Shaped oaf who never arrived bashing through any brick walls in protest just as the commercials proclaimed), all the Shaun Cassidy albums our older brothers trashed and held cigarette lighters to after we played them to oblivion, all the guys in Leif Garrett haircuts we speculated might be the man himself before we really even knew who Leif Garrett was…. All the bell bottoms tripped over…?
Well, nobody does that in New American Theatre’s Loose Ends, penned by Michael Weller, and directed by Jack Stehlin, but you can bet all the drama surrounding it was certainly occurring peripherally alongside it.
The play, written authentically right at the decade’s end takes us through the entire post free-love to pre-Reaganomics’ 3,650 days-worth-of-nights and centers around 20-something to 30-something couple Paul Baumer and Susan Steen.
It is the summer of 1970. Paul and Susan meet on a beach in Bali—he the humanitarian Peace Corps aspirant and she the ostensible laissez faire spoiled child traveler. It is a relationship in the making and ripe for the picking aside from the sunsetted memory’s impairment via Susan’s paranoid, arachnophobic travel companion Janice. Having suffered the arrival of some blue spiders—well, legless but still live spiders as soon as Janice and her can of leg-rending liquid courage have their way with them–an aggressively smitten fishmonger arrives to further interrupt the Baumer/Steen summit. And he simply won’t take Janice’s refusal to multitask fish cooking and spider killing for an answer!
Once Paul pays Janice’s fishy Valentine and Susan promises to return to the house of legless arachnids, she urges Paul to travel with her and her Janice-the blue spider torturer—unless Susan can ditch them all somehow. But Paul has more important things to do back in the states namely teaching kids. Who the hell knows what Susan aspires to? It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius Baby and the unearthing of women’s empowerment wherein the fairer sex can decide to do everything and nothing until the powers that be do everything in their financial power to make it no one’s choice not to work, but until then, Susan is a free bird Lynard Skynard style. Then again, that’s just the danger of too much freedom, one might wager—some folks thrive, some folks waffle and waver via overwhelm, and some folks simply lord it over on others. (Honestly, I’m about as liberal as they come and said concept inspired by this play causes me some great discomfort in even posing it, but that’s what thought-provoking art does sometimes and often times the more uncomfortable it makes us, the better.)
During the course of their as-yet-non-courtship, Paul and Susan meet each other randomly on a bus in Philly as if by the hand of Kismet. Thereafter our story takes us through almost every year of the seventies (from Boston to The Big Apple) as Paul introduces Susan to his friends and relatives: the cartoonishly horny Doug, and the perpetually pregnant, somewhat potty-mouthed Maraya (a couple, in case you hadn’t guessed), and Paul’s initially smarmy and materialistic brother Ben. Susan gives the social gift that keeps on giving in the form of the esteemed and colorful Janice who returns a couple more times with a mono-syllabic wannabe Guru type boyfriend, and later in the 70s–and closer to grown up couplehood–a decidedly more henpecked one, Lawrence, her most flamboyant interior decorator, and Selina, a fairly hot shit editor whom Paul takes under his wing in his own occupation, then openly contemplates sleeping with one weekend when Susan is out of town and he suspects her of cheating on him—even though they have an ostensibly open marriage.
All throughout Paul and Susan’s relationship, from their first meeting-on-post-marriage, there is a subtle to palpable tension; it is always as if something is wrong—just beneath the surface. But what? Susan in particular waxes constantly worried as if either plotting her escape or divining how to ensnare Paul further so that he becomes perhaps a clone of sorts or quite possibly even the male version of herself. But really, when it comes right down to it, she does and doesn’t know what she wants and doesn’t care whom she does or doesn’t take along in the process.
Despite Susan’s initial occupational wavering, she has emerged as quite the established photographer, but mostly by happy accident. Paul dabbles in the film industry but Susan can only urge him further into the rat race. He acquiesces but it seems to agitate him more than fostering any manner of solid enjoyment. Some would look at Paul and Susan and make a referential statement about any and all pants in the relationship belonging to her.
The audience and the characters alike will come to actualize this truism at the play’s climax when Susan does the unthinkable, leaving Paul none the wiser, until her 33rd birthday party (a somewhat significant number in mystical literary lore) when he unleashes his pent-up wrath for all to see!
I like this play on many levels, even though there is not much in the way of a moveable plot and, irrespective of its sometimes vague almost mundane slice-of-life-sensibilities, it is as though the entire story arc is a pent-up ball of sad, scared and angry subtext just straining to be released under the weight of all chronological and relevant social pressures, dashed hopes, and changing times.
Then again, who are we kidding? There was something about the entire decade of the seventies that was uncomfortable, from the fashion and furniture steeped in prominently subdued earth tones, to the (confusing for some) changing face of culture and gender expectations, to the Vietnam War, to the saddest of sad songs on the radio and in Televised and silver screened movies alike, to the two largest Nuclear disasters humanity had seen thus far via Three Mile Island and Love Canal: something didn’t sit right and was a tad askew… Perhaps (and this is just MY sci-fi/existentialist reverie) the world had even ended in a parallel universe at the dawn of 1979—but that’s what makes it SO BADASS!!! Yet in many ways, reaching one nostalgic hand back to the restrictive 50s with the other just outstretched past the emergingly permissive 60s (after the prologue of the hippie movement had lost a bit of its luster) a lot of things about the 70s were just kind of half-assed. Hence the title, Loose Ends.
The cast gives as good as it gets in negotiating its way through Paul and Susan’s rollercoaster-ish relationship. Starting with Jeff Kongs as Paul Baumer, what can I say? You just wanna cry for the guy (and considering that he wasn’t such a nice dude in the last play in which you saw him, well, there ya go—seriously, it’s called acting, my friends–ACTING!!!) Ally Gordon as Susan is both vexing and intriguing, well, uh…vexing in a dramatically desirable way that makes one feel like she is whining when she is not—like whining under her portrayed persona if that makes any sense. Romy Cutler Lengyel as Janice is just what the doctor ordered for all hypochondriacs, particularly for those for whom laughter is the best and only medicine! George Capacete is just copasetic as the Balinese Fisherman (but probably not so much so after Janice disses him—though neither she nor the fisherman would understand what a diss is due to his language barrier and her vernacular-chronological lack of reference.) Mark Richardson as the bodaciously bearded Doug is just a rascally rapscallion, I tell ya! Carly Waldman as Maraya is just as delicious as she is Doug worthy! Kyle Billings as Ben is good but gets better when his character lays off his ‘act’—concerning alleged and illicit acts with women who are not his wife. Iona Meli as Selina was just the perfect bread spread to that Paul and Susan sandwich to beat any and all romantic tension and looked absolutely adorable in her bell bottoms and tunics! Max Bunzel as the faux guru Russell was hilario-tastic, and Andy Stokan as Janice’s boyfriend part deux under the guise of poor henpecked ol’ Phil was just as sympathetic as you could find him for what little time he had onstage. And lastly, but certainly not in the least, Benjamin Burdick as Susan’s flamboyant decorator Lawrence sorta stole the show for me thusly prompting me to belly laugh ‘til the disco ball dropped!!!
There were times when I felt some of the inner subtext could have made itself more outwardly evident and more levels could have been found in terms of character portrayal and scene flow. But all in all, it definitely worked in most places and the actors were thoroughly professional.
If you’re looking for a plot fostering any sort of resolve, this play is not for you, hence the title right out in plain sight: Loose Ends. But if you enjoy a little 70s nostalgia with your wine and water, to speak nothing of a cavalcade of colorful characters, this dramatic romp might provide just the occupation you seek!
Loose Ends runs through June 11th at the Victory Theatre on Victory Blvd. in Burbank.
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