Winner of the 2016 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award for Ensemble, ChipandGus— written, directed, and performed by John Ahlin and Christopher Patrick Mullen, and produced by Fat Knight Theatre, where Ahlin serves as Artistic Director–balances a fast pace with a slow reveal in a two-hander about male bonding. In one cathartic night, over the course of their monthly ping-pong match at a local bar in Upstate New York, the university colleagues from different departments, who converse incessantly but never really communicate, let their guards down, open up to each other, and discover a connection that goes much deeper than their mutual love of the game.
Ahlin is Gus, a full-bodied full professor and socially inept “idea man” who delights in his own pedantry and one-upmanship. He constantly spouts his knowledge about history, philosophy, grammar, and virtually everything else, while never hesitating to correct Chip (“You gotta listen”), but is physically incapable of bending over to pick up a ping-pong ball and psychologically unable to deal with his suppressed emotions. Mullen’s Chip is an adjunct faculty member and composer, who engages his opponent in both table tennis and endless prattle, and energetically retrieves all of the missed balls. Unlike the “luddite” Gus, Chip has a superior handle on current technology, playing music on the latest Cloud-based digital device and repeatedly interrupted by the dings of his cell phone, though he, too, has trouble in discussing the serious issues that confront him.
As the actors volley back and forth with balls and words, they never miss a beat in their non-stop dialogue or the real-time game they play. They distinctly capture the two disparate personalities with fluid naturalism, while developing their characters and evoking in them contemporary male versions of the classic contrast between sense and sensibility, the active versus the contemplative life, and, as referenced by Gus, the choice of Hercules. As the show progresses, we see them compete, quibble, battle, drink, and at last talk to each other about secrets from the past and present, and thereby form the basis of a true friendship through their new-found candor, understanding, and support.
JD Taflewitz’s set design effectively recreates the familiar look of a “rundown game room off of a rundown sports bar” with a ping-pong table and equipment, bar table and stools, and detritus from a night of drinking and playing. Davina Smart’s everyday costumes are in keeping with the definition of the characters and their situations, and Linda Moulton’s lighting is unobtrusively realistic.
ChipandGus is at once intelligent, funny, exasperating, and poignant, and the FringeNYC award and encore presentation of this self-described “comedy with balls” are well deserved.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.