Saturday, March 08, 2014

Take Me Back

The not-quite-accurate publicity synopsis for Emily Schwend's new play Take Me Back goes as follows:
James Kautz
Photo: Russ Rowland
After a four-year stint in federal prison, Bill is back at home, living with his diabetic Mom and looking for a way out of Oklahoma. But today's America doesn't give a guy like Bill many options. How far is he willing to go to change his fortune? With a dose of melancholic nostalgia infused with dark humor, Take Me Back examines the impossibility of the American dream when surrounded by nothing but minimum wage Big Box stores and chain restaurants.
I would have liked to see that play. Instead, Take Me Back is another story about a jerky guy who is so committed to being a jerky guy that he cannot resist the opportunity to be, well, a jerky guy.

After Bill's parents mortgage the house to save him jail time from a DUI, he manages to get himself into further trouble, and ends up serving four years. Now he is home. Bill's not a bad guy. He loves his mother and tries to get her to take better care of herself. And he has indeed lost a couple of jobs when they found out that he was an ex-con. But that is discussed almost in passing, while his current illegal scheme is one of the main focuses of the play. Yes, he has few options. Yes, he needs money to live on. To that extent, and due to his amiable haplessness, he is a somewhat sympathetic character. But his commitment to his self-defeating stupidity (he leaves stolen goods in his parked pickup truck, covered only by a tarp, for days) makes him a tiresome character as well, not to mention a lousy poster boy for ex-cons trying to mend their ways.

Schwend tries to present the quotidian emptiness of many human interactions. However, she doesn't account for the fact that conversation on stage, just by being on stage, gains a level of intensity. Instead of creating natural dialogue, she hammers the audience over the head with her constant use of unending, relentless repetition. Schwend also displays the not-uncommon tic of having characters call each other by name incessantly. We seem to hear the name Bill about ten thousand times. It begins to feel like torture. (Not actual dialogue, but: How are you, Bill? Good to see you, Bill. Why did you do that, Bill? What's the matter, Bill? Are you sure that's a good idea, Bill? You get the idea.)

There is a good-heartedness to Take Me Back that almost makes up for its flaws. Schwend deeply cares about her characters and about the plight of people with few options in general. And the always-wonderful James Kautz gives a smart, textured, and sweet performance as Bill. The scenes between Bill and his ex-girlfriend Julie (the very effective Boo Killebrew) are the most successful in the play, perhaps because they have the highest stakes and the least repetition.

As it stands, however, Take Me Back doesn't justify its 90-minute running time, though there might be an excellent 30-minute play hiding in there.

(third row, press ticket)

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