There’s a lot going on in Sarah Gancher’s I’ll Get You Back Again, now at the Round House Theatre through October 29:
- A bitter stand-up comedian and her struggles to reconcile and come to terms with her pained past with her father.
- Her uncle, a member of a psychedelic ’60s rock band, and his negotiations with his own mortality.
- A rock opera, based on both The Three Stooges and Tibetan Buddhism. (“The Book of Shemp,” it’s called.)
- A love triangle that becomes a square at some point — it’s not clear when — before diminishing back to a triangle and then just a bare ass on the stage because what’s important in theater is provocation.
- Also, just, a lot of The Three Stooges in general. One whole manic scene is an extended riff on the slap-happy brothers so prepare yourself for joy or whatever its opposite is, accordingly.
- A father’s battle with substance abuse and disappointment and meteoric fame.
- And finally, what, ultimately, are we responsible for as we’re dying? What are we supposed to hold on to? What are we required to feel? What do we need to let go of?
Gancher’s play, developed with her friend and director Rachel Chavkin (recently of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 fame, so second acts of careers are, per usual, unpredictable), is a family drama with the pacing and timing of a sitcom that really wants you to know that it’s culturally relevant. There are Twitter jokes and hashtag mentions and the importance of Paul F. Tompkins to comedy (true) that feel more like counter bona fides to the play’s ’60’s adulation. It’s too long and often too much, so that emotional beats are buried and the whole piece feels weighted.
Which is too bad – because the cast is amazing and elevate a lot of the leaden moments of the thin script. Renata Friedman is Chloe, the aforementioned comedian who uses her comedy to vent her pain and bitterness into the world. Her sets are less performance and more harangues where she’s allowed to heckle the audience, and Friedman lands these moments through her delivery. She also perfectly captures the middle passage so many people in their late 30s and early 40s are corralled into: wanting to be an adult, knowing that being an adult is something one probably should want to attain, but finding the way cut off because all of our parents are terrified of aging and making space at the table by retiring to another room. No one is the age they’re supposed to be anymore. Everyone still wants to explain how important the ’60s were. We’re stuck in reminiscences. And that’s where Chloe is.
Her Uncle Carl (David Patrick Kelly, most recently seen on television in the third season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, hawking golden shovels) is finding himself, at the end of his life, struggling with regret. “The Book of Shemp” never happened. His musical glory days are behind him. And he’s left to worry at the relationship he had with his older brother (charismatically played by Brian Reisman). As Kelly plays him, Carl is a walking wound, but the script doesn’t give him much direction. He’s vulnerable, and nostalgic, but Kelly, an amazing and incredibly watchable actor (for instance, if anyone is working on a stage musical of The Fisher King I have your Michael Jeter for you), isn’t given a clear arc. That Carl is as believable as he is, is because Kelly is as good as he is.
This is the same for the other band members of the ’60s psychedelic rock band, The Pieces: centered, calm, and connected Melvin (whose Skype class to musicians in Japan is one of the highlights of the show) doesn’t give actor Michael Anthony Williams much else to do. He’s summed up by those three adjectives, and the end of the play leaves almost everything about Melvin unresolved. (Young Melvin, played by Jonathan Livas in flashbacks, has an incredible drum solo – but let’s come back to the music in a few more sentences.) Dan Manning creates the role of Coyote Dan as the worst person at the party: loud, boisterous, crude, selfish, unfinished. It’s his bare ass we see, in a kitchen, and you will either find that a wonderful moment of live theater or you’ll want to keep your program handy to hide behind because you were raised in specific ways and not all bravery needs to be witnessed by everyone. His flashback counterpart, Young Dan (Harrison Smith), is someone I would have loved to learn more about in his flashback scenes. Instead, as written, all Smith can do is give us Jack Black’s impersonation of Jim Morrison, and that’s disappointing because Smith is so utterly watchable and engaging.
And poor Tulip. Tulip (Helen Hedman) is the girl of the play. She was the girl of the ’60s, too. She is always the girl, and the script doesn’t ask for much more. Hedman has perfect comic timing, and is such a rewarding actor to watch, that it’s so frustrating to see her hampered with motherly cliche. Just watching Hedman stand, you get the sense that she could have given us a Tulip with a much more interesting, and necessary, backstory.
It’s not Chavkin’s fault the script she’s been given to direct is the script she’s been given to direct, and she keeps the actors busy on stage with mostly believable business. I didn’t need the long homages to the Stooges – but Chavkin keeps those moments moving. There are a couple music moments in the play that feel… even less anchored. Those moments never catch fire. And for a play whose title is based on a song lyric from The Pieces, it’s not a recurring motif, and we never really hear the whole song, or understand what it might mean to any of the characters.
Brenda Abbandandolo has dressed everyone comfortably and perfectly and if she’s reading this I should like to have the pants Harrison Smith wears because yes, please and thank you. Nancy Schertler’s lighting design is unremarkable at first – but then becomes an integral part of the storytelling, weaving us into and out of flashbacks and hallucinations. The most amazing part of the entire production, though, is Carolyn Mraz’s set. A hippie’s cottage is built on stage and spins and turns, revealing a living room, a kitchen, a porch swing, an attic room. It gives us scenic montages, much the way television does. And maybe that’s where this play would work best: television. But it still needs some workshopping.
Watching talented actors, underserved by their script, is heartbreaking. But if you are going to see this play, I can at least promise you’ll see some talented people doing their very best.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
I’ll Get You Back Again plays through October 29, 2017, at the Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.