4615 Theatre’s gripping ‘A Measure of Cruelty’ rips open three men’s wounds

A play set in a bar is a punch in the gut and a tug to the heart.

The casual cruelty that constructs men’s certainty they’re real men—and the cost of that violence to others and to themselves—comes under scathing scrutiny in Joe Calarco’s shattering one-act A Measure of Cruelty. Directed by the author as a site-specific experience in a bar in Bethesda, this gripping production by 4615 Theatre Company rips open raw wounds done by and done to three generations of men.

Appearing in ‘A Measure of Cruelty’ at Flannagan’s Harp and Fiddle bar: Ethan Miller (Derek), Scott Ward Abernathy (Buddy), Nick Torres (Teddy).

Flannagan’s Harp and Fiddle, which bills itself “the oldest neighborhood bar in town,” has a wrap-around bar surrounded by tables and chairs from which sightlines are unobstructed as three engrossing actors roam the room. The most electrifying is Ethan Miller, who enters as 15-year-old Derek all hopped up and anxious and playing headbanging music with a remote. As we will learn, Derek is hiding out in this bar named Eddie’s because he flicked the Bic that set on fire a bullied classmate named Patrick.

Derek is being harbored by Buddy, a war vet who is haunted by the disparagement and death he dealt Afghanis. Buddy has taken Derek in like a big brother in vain hopes of saving him and somehow redeeming himself. But as becomes clear in Scott Ward Abernathy’s stolidly volatile performance, Buddy has a father whom he cannot forgive either.

Teddy is that dad. Teddy did something terrible to Buddy’s brother, Eddie, attempting to toughen him up; Eddie consequently committed suicide; and Buddy holds their father responsible. As played with bluster and age-appropriate arrested emotional development by Nick Torres, this patriarch barkeep is a piece of work.

Ethan Miller (Derek) and Nick Torres (Teddy) in ‘A Matter of Cruelty.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Calarco’s succinctly constructed script is packed with chilling plot points that are deployed not so much like exposition as explosions in a minefield of intergenerational gendered dominance. Derek did it to Patrick; Buddy does it to Derek; Teddy did it to Eddie and does it to Buddy and Derek. The rapid-fire dramatic action comes in spurts of physical oneupsmanship (Matthew Castleman did the in-our-face fight choreography), and it is interspersed with unexpected incidents of male-male comfort and affection even as Calarco’s dialogue depicts indelible vignettes of male-on-male bullying.

Calarco’s language throughout is vivid and blunt but particularly impressive in Derek’s apocalyptic, Clockwork-Orange-y, ADHD-ish speeches, which Miller, a rising young local talent, delivers dead-on. And Jordan Friend’s sound design—which includes newscasts, war sounds, and sirens—has you-are-there authenticity that’s remarkable given the nontheater space we’re in.

Scott Ward Abernethy (Buddy) and Ethan Miller (Derek) in ‘A Measure of Cruelty.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

In the immediacy of this intimate barroom, Joe Calarco’s A Measure of Cruelty offers a front-row seat to the slap-hug-slap-hug and rage-remorse-rage-remorse of wounding and wounded men. It’s at once a punch in the gut and a tug to the heart. And just like in life, there is no fourth wall. There is no wall at all.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

A Measure of Cruelty plays January 18, 19, 25, and 26, 2020, presented by 4615 Theatre Company at Flanagan’s Harp and Fiddle, 4844 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda, MD. Performances are at 2 p.m except January 26, which is 1 p.m. Tickets are available online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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