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A Humdinger of a Play: In Your Image

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Manchester, England. Twenty years after he “went out and didn’t come back,” Graham died of a heart attack, drunk in the hovel he called home. Warren, his younger son, arrives with a roll of bin bags, ostensibly to clean up, but truly looking for vestiges of the father about whom he remembers only the smell of tobacco.

Warren has OCD—everything is daunting, distracting, demanding. Life must be orderly or panic ensues. He’s repelled and obsessed at the same time. With the jerky gestures of a wary rabbit, Warren kneels on one bag and begins to fill another. There are dozens and dozens of disposable cameras. He lays these aside hoping their development will yield clues.

Chris, a few years older, has been guilted into making an appearance by their mother. When Graham disappeared, he became the man of the house, sheltering Warren and enabling him to attend a Polytechnic while he did “this and that” to support the family. Like his dad, Chris walked out on his wife. Like Graham, he drinks. Chris is a disheveled, brooding roughneck with a tender back-story; Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. He remembers their dad, “he were a piece of shit.”

Warren and Chris share the kind of embattled love that allows them to volley insults at one another with gusto and a sense of one-upmanship. During a few moments of emotional combustion, the boys are equals. Warren is methodical in his sorting, Chris desultory. There’s some catching-up to do. At Chris’ insistence they playact Warren’s morning visit to Shelly from the deli on whom he has a crush, so that he might find a way to approach her. It’s priceless. Chris thinks he wants to go back to his wife, but hasn’t a clue how to go about it. Circumstances are revealed. Warren’s response is surprisingly level headed.

“All this rubbish, all this shit, it’s ours.” (Chris) The play comes together like a puzzle whose picture is elusive during the process. It’s powerfully compelling. Characters are detailed. A memory of Warren’s teddy bears shed light on both the brothers. Relationship dynamics feel authentic and richly textured. Among many beautifully wrought speeches, the highlight is one of the best (Irish) descriptions of what it’s like to be a drunk by the drunk, since Eugene O’Neil. Graham was a pixilated, philosophical, fatalistic alcoholic with a laugh like the devil and the compulsion of a salmon swimming upstream. He resonates.

Rob Benson (Warren) offers as raw a portrayal of the sufferance of OCD as you’ll ever see. His tension is contagious. When insight comes from left field or bravery is provoked by baiting, Benson’s reactions seem unvarnished. We accept that he accepts who he is. A marvelous physical actor, his methods of coping with the room are artfully calibrated. The conflicted feelings he has about Chris become eloquent with inflection and attention.

Roger Clark (Chris) broods like a leading man from a classic noir film. (I mean this to be praise.) Unarticulated pain is as focused as the unleashed fury we see later. Chris’ tenderness, viscerally strangled by circumstance, is nonetheless made apparent by this excellent craftsman. Look at the way he looks at Warren in act one. Compare it to the second act. A robust, engaging performance.

John Michalski’s Graham is masterful. Give this man some Shakespeare! Not only does he credibly play plastered, but he does so with such variance that intelligence, disorientation, resignation, and even parental recognition shines through. You’d swear there’s something in that bottle the way he relishes each swig. And his timing! Michalski is a truly gifted actor.

Deborah Wolfson (Director) is formidably creative. These are nuanced, many layered performances, yet never over the top. Watching Warren take the exact same meticulous route around the garbage to simulate his entering the deli where he sees Shelly is quite wonderful as are Chris’ facial expressions during the exchange. A tussle is believable. Even the distance between the boys is measured to dialogue. In the second act, for reasons I won’t reveal, the temperature changes.

One small note: the lower class accents are marvelous, but sometimes a bit difficult, especially at the beginning. The play would be better served with a slight loosening of what I assume is accuracy.

Kacie Hultgren’s Scenic Design is inspired: deeply stained walls, encrusted counters, a sink filled with sludge and dishes, bags of trash- nowhere near as full as the floor and shelves, piled and crumpled newspapers, egg crates and take-away containers, empty beer and whiskey bottles, a chair with seat sunk through, shelves of peeling veneer, the single window so filthy day and night are alike, its curtains are faded and poor…everything covered in weeks of dust and dirt… The set is gloriously repulsive.

In Your Image is a precisely drawn, profoundly satisfying story of two boys who couldn’t be more different and the alcoholic absentee father who shaped them from afar. It makes one think of the pithy work of iconic playwrights of the forties and fifties. Every minute of the eighty minutes it presents is substantial. The sustained pathos and vigorous dialogue are terrific. I found only the ending a curious choice in its abruptness (one is literally unsure it’s over) and wonder whether it mightn’t have been otherwise handled.

Rob Benson is an extremely talented playwright.

Attention filmmakers: with some opening up, this would make a great movie.

If In Your Image is indicative of those by On The Square Productions, I recommend keeping an eye on their web site for future endeavors. www.onthesquareproductions.com

Photos by Anton Brookes

In Your Image by Rob Benson
Directed by Deborah Wolfson
With Bob Benson, Roger Clark, John Michalski
On The Square Production at
59E59 St Theaters
www.59e59.org
Through February 27, 2011

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