nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
March 6, 2010
Blue Coyote Theatre Group's production of Glee Club by Matthew Freeman is a challenging and complex comedy. Rather than being a theatrical experience that carried me away, it frankly puzzled me.
The play is a about a glee club in Vermont attempting to rehearse one song which they are booked to sing at the Fairview Nursing Home at the end of the week. The glee club is led by Ben, who is a cranky, over-stressed songwriter slumming in Vermont because he was burned by showbiz swindlers in New York. The singers are a dysfunctional group of unhappy men played with varying degrees of broadness and naturalism. There's Fred who's a classic sycophant, tries too hard and knows everyone else's melodies just in case. There's Mark who's losing it because his life is being destroyed by a nasty divorce and custody battle. There's Greg (played with effective honesty and simplicity by Carter Jackson) who is there because singing and friendship give him joy... while he waits to die of cancer. There's Paul who says psychopathic things that stop the play each time he speaks so everyone can stare at him, disturbed. There's pathetic Stan, who carries a flask of whiskey in his pocket and sadly enjoys no respect from his fellow singers. Then there's Nick: a jerk who hates everyone. The final singer to arrive is the soloist, Hank (played with candor and heart by Tom Staggs). Hank informs the group that he is trying to beat alcoholism, has been sober for two weeks but has never sung without being drunk before. His fellow singers are morally divided and generally unsupportive of his sobriety. So, it's a comedy, get it? Honestly, I didn't. But everyone else seemed to think it was hilarious.
Also, it's oddly a one-song musical. Whenever the men can quit arguing and insulting each other long enough to sing, Ben lets them get just a few lines in before stopping them. Once stopped, he tells them that they've failed terribly, threatens them, and, predictably, gets more and more riled up to a boiling point. The characters, in turn, get more and more frustrated because they all just want to sing the song. I was sympathetically frustrated for them too.
The song, when we do finally hear it, is about horribly depressing things. It is called "The World Will Make You Smile" and is supposed to be, according to their leader Ben, a happy song about smiling. The song is actually written by Stephen Speights, who also plays Ben. It is meant to cheer up the nursing home residents while they wait to die. It's about "a man you'd never want to meet... just skin and bones" who morbidly warns us to go away. And it says the world is just "an orb absorbing up the lonely, bitter, broke and homely pushed into a pile." But then it will somehow make you smile. Regardless of the lyrics, I did leave the theatre humming the happy melody in my confusion.
So the play is a study of not-funny things being funny. It's a play about depressing circumstances somehow provoking smiles. This is a "glee" club where its members only upset each other and there isn't any "glee." Thankfully, in the end, the sad and troubled members of the singers do sing the song. It is a joyous, beautiful thing to behold and then I understood why they all showed up to rehearsal in the first place. It is a very brief but satisfying payoff after all the prior petty bitterness between the characters to see them genuinely enjoying singing with each other. And there's the happy ending... albeit a twisted one.