nytheatre.com review by Ben Trawick-Smith
June 3, 2010
The conflict between youth and middle-age is at the heart of Liner Notes, an affecting new drama by John Patrick Bray. Set at the turn of the millennium, the play examines the often strained relationship between Baby Boomers and their children. In particular, Bray explores the ever-changing boundaries between young and old in a society where the generation gap is getting increasingly narrower.
The play follows Alice, a young woman coping with the recent suicide of her rock musician father. On a whim, she travels hundreds of miles to visit her dad's former guitarist, George. Now a divorced academic, George is still bitter about his falling out with his ex-bandmate. Reluctantly, he agrees to take a road trip with Alice to her father's grave in Montreal.
As they make their trek north, the protagonists become increasingly confused about how to relate to each other. Should they treat one another as peers? As a parent and child? As potential lovers? This tension comes to a head in a pivotal scene in an Upstate New York bar, as George opens up about his relationship to Alice's parents. The banter of the two characters is alternately gentle, scolding, flirtatious, and awkward. There is a growing emotional bond between them, and neither of them quite knows where it's going.
Their age difference soon becomes all too apparent. After Alice spends a night partying, George chides her for being promiscuous. He is clearly conflicted about where his resentment is coming from. Is he acting as a concerned parent, or is he simply jealous? Are the two feelings separable? It is a credit to the playwright that we never quite learn the answer.
Bray has a gift for creating vivid, richly detailed characters. In particular, he endows George with such a meticulously crafted back story that it's hard to believe the character isn't a real person. George's monologues about his brief life in the spotlight are long but never dull, expository yet fully authentic.
What's less convincing, however, are the circumstances bringing the two characters together. It is unclear as to why Alice wants to reconnect with George, and even less clear as to why he agrees to take a trip with her. The characters' fundamental lack of motivation makes some of the more dramatic moments seem forced and arbitrary. This is particularly true of the play's confrontational finale. The stakes aren't high enough to justify the emotional fireworks.
As George, Michael Bertolini gives a pitch-perfect, understated performance. He portrays the character's weariness, closet intellectualism, and moral confusion so well that we never question the truth of his story. Equally excellent is Kathryn Elisabeth Lawson as Alice, wonderfully capturing the growth period between teenage petulance and emotional maturity. Director Erin Smiley clearly has a grasp on these characters and their lives, although a number of important moments seem rushed, particularly at the end. At 75 minutes, the show could actually use a bit of air.
Bray has fashioned an incisive, touching study about love and generational conflict in the 21st century. The play could definitely benefit from a stronger main storyline; the past events are so interesting that the onstage drama suffers by comparison. Nevertheless, Liner Notes is a finely drawn portrait of current American life, and definitely a trip worth taking.