Brack's Last Bachelor Party
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
March 3, 2010
It occurred to me on my way home from attending Babel Theatre Project's production of Sam Marks's new play, Brack's Last Bachelor Party, that a large part of the appeal of so-called "period dramas" lies in watching the corruption of innocence. I know "period drama" is a rather obtusely vague descriptor—what I mean by that catch-all phrase are the "small stories" that were especially popular on the Western stage in the latter end of the 19th century, when the movements of realism and naturalism first began to really take hold. The shining stars of these movements, as I'm sure we all know, are Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, and of course, Henrik Ibsen.
Of course, the allure of corruption isn't the sole thing that draws us to plays of this era—there's also frequently beautiful dialogue and ideas, and, more often than not, interesting characters. But, there is something extra thrilling (and oddly comforting) in watching from our messy, existential, so-called-enlightened, 21st century seats, these crisp, structured (some would say stuffy and repressed) characters as their lives fall apart, however minusculely, into chaos. We become little Miltonian Satans, delighted in our envy, by watching these perfect creations fall from the world of Innocence into the mess that is Experience. Or maybe that's just me. But I kinda doubt that.
It's no surprise these thoughts occupied my head as I left 59E59—Marks's play is practically a master class in the concept of corruption by experience, and while it has its shortcomings as an entirely successful piece of theatre, its ideas and execution are fascinating.
For those who don't immediately recognize the title's allusion, Brack's Last Bachelor Party concerns itself with Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece, Hedda Gabler—in particular, a pivotal scene Ibsen doesn't show us: the bachelor party for Hedda's new husband, George Tesman. Much of the climax of Ibsen's drama stems from the consequences of this party, so a play imagining just what happens during the evening is rich with possibilities. What Marks has done with it, too, is use this situation to expound upon the divide between our world and the world of the "period drama," imagining, as it were, the dread one would feel when realizing that the former is simply the inevitability of the latter.
Not much happens as far as plot is concerned. Judge Brack throws a bachelor party for Tesman (a charmingly sincere Josh Barrett), an average academic who somehow has married "the most famous woman in the town." As the party rages on, Tesman holes himself up in Brack's parlor with his romantic rival, the brilliant Eilert Lovborg, who reads to Tesman from his newest manuscript, a philosophical novel that begins to disturb, then horrify, the sensitive Tesman. Lovborg gets drunker and drunker and, along with Brack (played with an intriguingly elusive menace by Alexander Alioto), crueler and crueler, and Tesman finds himself staring down the barrel of a future that is at once impossibly abstract and imminent.
Essentially Brack's Last Bachelor Party becomes a play about the horrors of Experience—the Blake model of Experience, with a capital E. Marks has left his script fluid enough, too, that this Experience can be read as either our modernity (with its moral ambiguities and deadly ennui) or, since we're talking about a bachelor party after all, masculinity: the terrors of growing into a sexual male.
Regardless of how you choose to interpret it, though, the parlor becomes a fascinating existential substitute for the bubble in which a person lives before knowledge and incessant obligation assert themselves. And what is essentially the play's B story, what may (or may not) be the contents of Eilert's manuscript, serves this motif well, intermittently popping onto the set and just hinting at an awful, all-too-possible domestic tragedy we have seen unfurl too many times in the news of our modern day.
This B story is a contemporary one (despite Brack's and Tesman's protestations that a world like ours would never exist), and Marks and director Geordie Broadwater further emphasize the play's ideas by allowing modern-day props to start creeping into the Ibsen-era storyline: a magazine left on the couch, red plastic party cups, a TV tuned to nothing but static. It's a great trope that works wonderfully. The play as a whole, though, is unfortunately marred by a rather unnecessary coda. I don't want to spoil the specifics, but Marks and Broadwater have a natural climax with the end of Brack's titular party, when the events of Ibsen's play reassert themselves. This shift is staged effectively with much weight and horror—anything afterwards, particularly of more than a minute's length, feels extraneous. We don't need closure to the contemporary track—we're not Tesman, after all. We live in this world.
The ensemble is a fine one. Special appreciation must go to Michael Crane's performance as the brooding, intellectual Lovborg, whose disaffected drunkenness is uncomfortably convincing. Always a difficult state to portray on stage, Crane's masterful portrayal of Lovborg's insobriety—a vital tent peg to both Marks's and Ibsen's scripts—gives the character a deliciously threatening and unpredictable energy, and further emphasizes the mortal hollowness of the world of Experience that can wait just outside the parlor door.
I'm not entirely convinced that one needs to be more than passingly familiar with Ibsen's play—or if, indeed, it's necessary at all (though, I'll admit I'd be surprised if anyone not familiar with Hedda is likely to jump at attending a production that purports to be the play's great missing scene). What we have with Brack's Last Bachelor Party is an entertaining play of ideas, well acted, written, and produced, and ready to inspire the best kinds of after-theatre discussion. And, after all, if we must live in this world of Experience, we might as well enjoy ourselves by discussing the hell out of it, right?