Keep Your Baggage With You (At All Times)
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 8, 2010
The brand-new Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City kicks off with Keep Your Baggage with You at All Times, an intimate drama by Jonathan Blitstein. It's being performed in the largest of TNC's venues (the Johnson Theatre), and director Daniel Talbott is using the ultra-deep, ultra-wide space—which is often troublesome—with his customary inventiveness, creating an environment in which the play breathes and flows seamlessly as it charts five years in the friendship of longtime best pals Greg and Dave. Talbott has cast the play with four strong actors who bring a naturalness and complexity to Blitstein's characters that make us know and care about them during the 70-minute span of the drama.
The story is told episodically, in seven scenes that each take place in different public spaces (their nature is neatly echoed by Talbott's staging, which keeps a trio of stagehands and the unused actors on the periphery of every scene—sometimes watching, sometimes not, but always present). When we first meet Greg and Dave, it's 2006, and they're both twentysomething: Dave's a photographer in a comfortable long-term relationship with Julie (who is also in this first scene); Greg's working on his Ph.D. in English, in every way jealous of Dave's life (though he'd never admit it; probably isn't even conscious of the fact).
Cut to Scene 2, and it's four months later. Dave's just been dumped by Julie, while Greg is in the throes of early infatuation with a new girl, Ashley. Six months more go by, and Dave is living the high life, dating a new girl seemingly every other day, while Greg and Ashley have just set up house together. And so it goes: Dave grows up and changes in ways that surprise Greg, and Greg retreats into a sameness and into himself in ways that disappoint and surprise Dave. Their relationship is tested; I will leave it to you to discover whether it strengthens or buckles under.
I sensed a strong undercurrent of love between Dave and Greg, one that's belied by their macho posturings. I think two straight men can have a long and loving relationship, but I'm not sure that that's what Blitstein is going for here; are we meant to believe that they're repressing homosexual desire for one another? It's provocative but I wonder if it's a bit of a red herring in this script. Julie and Ashley, meanwhile—whom we know more from what's said about them than from what we actually observe or hear—seem more in tune with their own needs, but are they ultimately more successful than their boyfriends in navigating the complicated morass of relationships that Blitstein has mapped out here?
Blitstein's writing recalls Neil LaBute's both in its directness and its exploration of male insecurity and panic. The conversation feels sharp and true, especially as directed here by Talbott with a split-second timing that feels entirely organic, like something you'd overhear or be part of yourself in a bar or restaurant. The talk is sexually frank, the way intimate friends sometimes really do talk, which makes it feel from the audience like serious eavesdropping.
Nate Miller plays Greg, who is the play's protagonist; he gets the difficult combination of a genuinely decent guy who can't help behaving like an asshole pretty convincingly right. Daniel Abeles is terrific as Dave; his performance is full of details and nuances that convey when this guy is fully focused and really listening and when, too often, he's in his own head, fiddling with his cell phone or whatever and not all that in touch with the people near him. He shows us Dave's growth, too, which for me was the most interesting aspect of the play; I was disappointed that Blitstein didn't probe more deeply into Dave's maturation and progress.
Laura Ramadei (Julie) and Molly Ward (Ashley) have much smaller roles, but they keep them from being thankless and create fully-dimensional characters within the constructs of the script.
Definitely an intriguing beginning for a new festival...