nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2008
NICOLE: You're an optimist.
NOEL: No, I'm not.
NICOLE: Yes, you are! You believe that the world will somehow behave in accordance with your laws. And then when it doesn't, you're genuinely surprised.
I'm not sure that I agree with Jason Chimonides's definition of optimism (as stated by Nicole, one of the three characters in his new play The Optimist). (Check out the philosophical and psychological concepts of optimism as explained by Wikipedia to see what I mean.)
But definitions aside, the sad thing about Chimonides's world view, at least in this play, is how hopeless it is. Nicole ends her argument with Noel by saying, "You're an optimist! I'm telling you! Be a realist, get over yourself!" And I think we're meant to agree with her. Earlier, she tells Noel that he feels things too much; that he should behave like the rest of the world and medicate himself and/or shop. I understood the play's conclusion to indicate that that's precisely what Noel is likely to do.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let me introduce these people to you: Noel, 25, and Nicole, 24, were lovers for nearly three years who have been apart for several months. He moved to New York and she went to Lincoln, Nebraska with her boyfriend, who is a demolitions expert. Noel has a fraternal twin, Declan, and the two of them have reunited on this particular weekend for their father's wedding to his longtime girlfriend (a woman he had an affair with throughout his marriage to their mother). Declan—who may nor may not self-medicate or shop but nevertheless has become a master of detachment—seems unaffected by this event, but Noel is a wreck. He blames his father for their mother's death and carries some obvious if mostly unexplained baggage regarding his relationship with his Dad that has brought him near the breaking point. In fact when we first meet Noel, he's planning to disrupt the wedding. Later, he challenges his father to a boxing match.
Noel's suffering is exacerbated by the very recent death of a longtime friend, Tanya; her funeral is being held just two days after the wedding, which is why Nicole is in town and staying at the very same motel as Noel. When she steps back into Noel's life, right in the midst of his already out-of-control crisis, things heat up still more. The Optimist tracks Noel's implosion. It is never less than compelling but it's finally fairly unconvincing...and, as I've suggested already, I'm just not sure what Chimonides wants us to understand about the human condition from our encounter with these three confused twentysomethings.
A problem I had with the piece is how much information is withheld. Why did Noel and Nicole break up? Why has Nicole really come back to see Noel? Why does Noel hate his father so much? Why has Declan never met Nicole before (this seems particularly odd since Nicole knows Tanya, who apparently grew up with Noel)?
I also was bothered by how "written" the play feels. The dialogue is dense, heightened speech that frequently parses as pseudo-intellectual babble, probably because the play's trappings are so naturalistic. If Chimonides and director Jace Alexander could find a way to make the drama unfold less realistically and more impressionistically, the language might be easier to take.
As it stands, The Optimist works best as a showcase for its three actors, in particular Matt Burns as Noel and Chris Thorn as Declan. While both of them occasionally go too far over the top in rendering their characters' emotions on stage, they take full advantage of the many opportunities the script offers them to showcase impressive range as actors. Burns and Thorn are both talents to keep an eye on. Caitlin FitzGerald has a much less showy role as Nicole, but turns in a fine performance as well.
Chimonides, too, provides evidence of skill here. But The Optimist ultimately felt to me more like an attempt by an angry young man to work through some personal grievances than a fully-wrought study of how human beings tick.