Fenway: Last of the Bohemians
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 5, 2006
Fenway: Last of the Bohemians, the newest play by Kelly McAllister and his new collaborator Lisa Margaret Holub, borrows characters and situations from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to tell a story of Americans hopelessly lost in middle-aged ruts. The time is 1986, the height of the Reagan Era, and the country itself, with Vietnam and Watergate a decade in its past, seems headed towards the same sort of relentless anomie. (Has this week's election at long last signaled a path out of that?)
The place is a small island in the Puget Sound, north of Seattle, where 25 years before a bunch of idealistic hippies founded a commune. They included Big Jon Humphrey, who was their leader; his wife; her brother, Fenway; Rita, the nominal "mother" of the pack, who bakes brownies laced with marijuana and "spices" coffee with brandy; and rock & roll stoner Zehner, whose nickname is "Fuckface." The last three still reside at the commune as the play begins. Big Jon's wife died of cancer many years ago; her daughter, Sunny, now runs the place with Fenway. And visiting, for the first time in at least a decade, is Big Jon himself, now a born-again Republican trading on his one-time Abbie Hoffman-esque notoriety to become a prominent and well-compensated convert to the Reagan Revolution. With Big Jon is his new wife, Madison, an intelligent, restless woman who is becoming increasingly disenchanted as the once dynamic man she married has begun to atrophy in uncomfortable middle-to-old age.
Fenway has fallen head-over-heels for Madison, who does not reciprocate. Fenway's best friend, a doctor named Moss who is intensely concerned about the environment, is also enamored of Madison (and in fact knew her years before, when she was a graduate student and he was a young college professor). Fenway cannot abide Big Jon, who he views, with justification, as a sellout and a mooch; he's also very jealous of his brother-in-law, because of his success as a writer and because of his possession, as it were, of Madison.
Sunny, 17, is in love with Moss. As the play progresses, we come to know her well enough to understand that this is no mere kid's crush or infatuation.
If you're familiar with Chekhov's Vanya, then you can see how McAllister and Holub have mapped the situations from that earlier play to their Seattle commune. If you're not, then you will find much to discover as these tangled desires work themselves out.
Either way, you'll be treated to two of the attributes of McAllister's writing that I most admire and respect, namely his deep humanity, which is everywhere in this play, and his keen social consciousness, which echoes Chekhov neatly: the scene that's probably closest to its counterpart in Vanya is the one where Moss explains to Madison about the awful damage wrought by man on the environment—how prescient Chekhov was! And how sadly impotent have generations of activists proved to be as the damage progresses beyond even Chekhov's direst and gloomiest imaginings.
Fenway is intelligent, warm, and funny throughout, but it's not without its problems. Chief among these is Madison's ennui, which is hard to explain in 1986 America: if she's bored with her husband, why doesn't she just leave him and get a job? (In Vanya, her counterpart has no such freedom.) Rita and Zehner's functions within the family/commune structure are also a little fuzzy here, as is the reason why Big Jon has returned. Fenway includes a few soliloquies (as well as a poem, delivered by Sunny at the top of the play) that feel a bit out of place as well: these characters don't know themselves well enough to soliloquize; it seems to me that they seek knowledge (and solace) in others. I suspect that McAllister and Holub will revisit some of these issues as they continue development of this piece.
The production, a co-presentation of Boomerang Theatre Company and Impetuous Theater Group, is generally fine. Tim Errickson's direction is well-paced and nuanced. Particularly strong performances are delivered by Jack Halpin, as a richly complex and humane Moss; James David Jackson as the guileless Zehner; and Reyna de Courcy as Sunny who, if not quite convincingly 17, gets her character's intelligence, frustration, and inner strength exactly right. Margaret A. Flanagan finds the maternal side of Rita but doesn't show us the sophistication that probably led her to this commune so many years ago. Carrie Brewer's Madison is similarly vaguely defined, though I suspect that part of the trouble is that two of her leading men feel so miscast—both Tom Knutson as Fenway and Paul Navarra as Big Jon are unsatisfying, the former playing both too old and too bland, and the latter probably not old enough and failing to convey the magnetism and power that would have attracted Fenway then and Madison now to his cause.
There is, nevertheless, much to commend this insightful and touching new play. So much fundamental in our world is the same now as it was 20 years ago and as it was in Chekhov's time. McAllister and Holub mine that particular truth with great sensitivity and intelligence in Fenway: Last of the Bohemians.