The Accident Bear is an unusual play, staged in an even more unusual location. Written by Bob Bartlett and directed by Jay Brock, it is set in a laundromat and is performed at The Avenue Laundromat in historic downtown Annapolis, just down the street from the State House. In front of the window, six chairs form a row, while behind them, cushions on the ledge allow for six more seats. Bartlett, a playwright and professor at Bowie State University, writes in the program that while living nearby and regularly using the laundromat, he “was challenged to write a play set in the laundromat, and to make it a romantic comedy.” He created a funny, yet touching play about relationships that uses memory in a way reminiscent of Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. As a bonus, it is performed in the place that inspired it and where it was written, a small space that allows for a powerful intimacy between the actors and the audience.
Paul Diem plays the Bear of the title with a gruffness that hides a big heart. At the start, he speaks in short, one-word bursts, kneeling before the candy machine in front, focused on getting it to work. As Chance (Rachel Manteuffel) literally stumbles through the front door, they speak at each other, her voice full of desperation while his is rough and distracted. Soon enough, though, he speaks in full sentences, revealing his vulnerable side. He urges her to “leave now, end this before I get hurt.” Tearing open the candy with his teeth, ecstasy shows on his face as he pops a piece in his mouth. By the end, exhaustion shows in his voice as he speaks to her, repeating what he’s said to her before, although he quickly livens up, emotionally telling what he knows about her (which proves to be a lot). He tells her, “you changed my life the moment you walked in.” Accident-prone, he comes in several scenes wearing a sling, and in another limping with a medical boot on one foot.
Rachel Manteuffel plays Chance with great physicality, getting the audience to gasp in surprise each time she enters the laundromat, even though they should quickly expect it. She moves away from Diem after he tells her about herself, putting her clothes back in her garbage bags and walking away. The first few times they kiss, it is quick, but the last several ones are long and romantic, her arms around his chest and his hands on her face stroking her hair. Several times, she looks at the audience and tells them of her time before they met. When he tells her about an accident that she holds herself responsible for, sadness passes over her face. She cries in frustration after dropping change under a washer, snatching his wire hanger and reaching under it. She helps him put his sling back over his arm. At the end, she looks up at him from the floor and smiles, and smiles at him as she leaves the laundromat. Without giving anything away, something she says early on helps to make sense of their scenes: “No one remembers everything exactly how it happened.”
Louis E. Davis has great comic timing as Buddy, Bear’s friend. He bursts in, dragging Bear to the window to see a “suspicious man” who seems to be following him. Later, he comes in through the back room, surprising everyone. He sits on top of the washers in a meditation pose, utterly calm. Later, as Bear does the same, he sits on the floor, absentmindedly throwing out worst-case scenarios for Bear’s sitting for so long. He helps his friend limp to the back room. A philosopher of sorts, he also offers insightful relationship advice, throwing out several theories for Bear’s regular accidents, all of which involve the dysfunctional Chance. His sadness at seeing Bear hurt, both physically and emotionally, and his earnest desire to help him makes for a heartfelt scene.
In addition to writing the play, Bartlett (interviewed here by DCMTA’s David Siegel) is also responsible for the costumes, props, and sound. The costumes are simple yet effective, with Bear wearing khaki pants, a white t-shirt, and a red plaid button-down shirt, while Chance has blue sweatpants, a red t-shirt, and a blue rain jacket. Buddy wears green pants, black t-shirt, a red sweater, a black winter vest, and a black cap.
The props are well-chosen: a screwdriver, wire hanger for Bear, along with a sling for his arm and a medical boot for one foot. Chance carries a backpack and two garbage bags filled with clothes, while Buddy has a small black scooter and several paper bags. Several books are on top of the candy machine. A wheeled laundry cart and a sheet of paper are also used. Bartlett uses a song to start certain scenes, which cleverly helps the audience understand, after a couple of these scenes, how they will play out. Silence otherwise fills the start and end of every scene.
Jay Brock does a wonderful job as Director. The actors navigate the space expertly, putting clothes in the washers and dryers, and fiddling with the vending machines. They lie on top of the washers and run around the outside to the back room. They work well together, hitting the comic moments as well as the emotional ones, and are comfortable with silent pauses. The only minor complaint is that when Diem walks to the back room, with his back to the audience, it can be difficult sometimes to make out his dialogue. However, everything comes together for an engaging, thoughtful evening that proves theater truly can be staged anywhere. There are only 12 seats for each performance, so be sure to get tickets!
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.