nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 7, 2009
Matthew Freeman's new play for the Antidepressant Festival, Glee Club, is a hoot. It's stylishly mean and funny, and a fine dark comic showcase for the eight actors who perform it.
The premise is that the eight members of the Romeo, Vermont Glee Club are rehearsing for an engagement this coming Saturday afternoon at an assisted-care facility where there one-and-only patron is dying; it's a make-or-break opportunity that will result either in continued funding or their probable demise.
The mordancy of this inciting incident carries through all of Freeman's characterizations: all of the men in the club are troubled losers, ranging from Mark, who is barely coping with a bitter divorce, to Greg, who is a too-proud cancer survivor, to Paul, who is downright psychopathic. Fred is the group's grasping opportunist, ready to jump in when someone else can't do his part. Stan is the nebbishy nerd with a flask hidden in his pocket. Ben is the group's leader, and the composer of the song they are attempting to rehearse, never ever satisfied with what he hears. Nick is just nasty. And Hank, the soloist, is late: when he arrives, he reveals his particular life situation, which sets off the plot of the show (and which would be unfair for me to divulge here).
The bulk of the play is testament to the grasping impulses of man at his worse: schadenfreude as (mostly very funny) comedy. The song the club is working on (composed by Stephen Speights, with lyrics by Speights with Freeman) is a charmer, and when they finally sing the men not only cheer up, but they make us happy as well. The tension comes in the counterpoint. I'm not sure that Glee Club is wholly successful: nobody in the play is grounded enough or likable enough to allow us to root for him, and nobody except for Paul is over-the-top enough to allow the play's outrage to burst ecstatically into outrageousness.
But the eight men on stage seem to be having a blast, and they keep the laughs coming under Kyle Ancowitz's swift and sharp direction. Gary Shrader is the standout as Paul, partly because he's playing so against type and partly because his role is the most fun. David DelGrosso as Nick and Bruce Barton as Fred are different kinds of guys we love to hate. Carter Jackson and Matthew Trumbull are very funny as the most pathetic members of the octet, respectively Greg and Stan. Robert Buckwalter (Mark) and Tom Staggs (Hank) bring real dimension to their roles, which are the most fleshed-out. Composer Speights is bombastic as Ben and makes lovely music at the piano as music director as well (he's not credited, but I assume he's helped guide the cast members to the beautiful harmony they achieve when they sing).
In the end, the possibly facetious tag line in the play's blurb—"Singing makes people feel good"—is borne out: the joyous performance of the song sends us out of the theatre with high spirits.