Hugging the Shoulder
nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
August 12, 2006
Derrick (Sam Dingman) kidnaps his brother Jeremy (Brian Floyd) in an attempt to get Jeremy to kick his heroin addiction. Derrick takes Jeremy on a road trip, but doesn't know just where, exactly, they are headed. And that's kind of what the play is like, too. Hugging the Shoulder unfolds in 90 intense minutes, but it meanders quite a bit, and goes on and on at points, much like most road trips.
Derrick is a good guy. He feels a lot of guilt, and over the course of the play we learn why he feels this way, but he remains a good guy. Jeremy is not a good guy. He's kind of a bastard, actually. He is selfish, mean, violent, and an all-around jerk. It's unclear whether Jeremy's jerkiness is a product of his addiction or if his addiction is a product of his jerkiness, which is as poignant and telling a comment on addiction as there can be. And so what's a good guy like Derrick supposed to do with a train wreck of a brother like Jeremy, especially when Jeremy seems destined to die very soon if he keeps shooting up? The more practical solution would be NOT to take matters into one's own hands and to, instead, seek professional help. And yet, Derrick tries to give his brother the kidnapping-and-road-trip cure. This turns out to be just as bad an idea as it sounds, which also, sadly, rings true. Hugging the Shoulder is nothing if not true to life. Too often, in fact, the play seems too real for its own good.
Have I mentioned that the play is intense? Intense is the key word here. Jeremy is always angry, always yelling, and the brothers are always at each other's throats. Sometimes this is extremely compelling, and sometimes this is monotonous and shrill. There are long stretches of road-time where the dialogue wanders off too far, or a monologue is delivered in what seems too much like an endless highway. There's a lot of exposition regarding the brothers' childhood dynamic which, at least for me, slows everything down. Every single scene, in fact, probably goes on too long. This is unfortunate, since the play makes us care so deeply for its characters. I can't help feeling that writer/director Jerrod Bogard needs to make the next draft of this very realistic play a bit more artful.
Artfulness abounds, though, in a series of flashbacks that show how Derrick came to decide how to deal with Jeremy's drug problem. These flashbacks give the play its life. We meet Jeremy's girlfriend Christy (Jane Petrov), who is, perhaps, a not-so-innocent bystander perilously caught up in her boyfriend's addiction. Christy is the play's oxygen. She's a great character, and the ways in which she interacts with each brother work as a roadmap for the audience to see both brothers more objectively. She's only in three scenes (during one of which, she is completely unconscious) but it's enough to display Petrov's considerable acting chops.
Speaking of acting chops, the whole cast is terrific. Sam Dingman and Brian Floyd carry the show with their honest, thoughtful, at times funny, oftentimes heartbreaking, and—as always—intense performances. Justin Ness has only one scene as a cop, but he's just as solid.
Bogard deserves a lot of credit for creating and directing a piece that gives such a strong ensemble so much to do. Despite its faults, the play is more than worth the trip. Hugging the Shoulder won me over and broke my heart.