Dan: “I know I’m a bastard, but even bastards need friends.”
Jess (into pocket recorder): “The disease that has shrink-wrapped our souls . . . “
An encounter between two old schoolfriends who’ve grown apart leads to a series of strange, even awkwardly funny two-, three- and four-way confrontations in A Step Away, a new play by Myrna Holden, adroitly staged by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club through Nov. 21.
Dan and Jess (Tom Darci and Soren Oliver) reunite—not quite re-ignite—and Dan spins a web of neediness around Jess, who’s found a life—and a mate, Emma (Jan Zvaifler).
He’s changed; Dan’s palpably envious and says he wants to change too. He says he’s never had a real relationship. “Haven’t you met women you like?”—“I never met one who liked me back.” Then saying he wants to learn from Jess and Emma—that he just wants to watch them relate and see how it’s done, he wants to live with them. “As a roommate?”—“Is there any other way?”
Emma isn’t thrilled with these developments, yet has “issues” herself, blaming herself for her brother’s suicide. Through reticence, noncommitment, irritation, she and Jess put Dan off—until he announces things have changed; he has a girlfriend, a “born entertainer,” Tilly (Deborah Fink). Eventually they all meet—and hit it off and, in a way, have fun together. Tilly’s young and frank: “I take money [the same money Dan offered Emma and Jess?]. I take grand gestures. I love grand gestures.” She dances for them, a splayed-limbed belly dance, gawky and sensual (and very funny). But things go to cross-purposes, and the funhouse atmosphere gets a little, well, gamey.
Gary Graves has directed his tight little ensemble of four very well in this intimate chamber play, using the narrow confines of the room in the City Club (set up like a smaller version of the Aurora—audience on three sides, slightly above the playing area) with complete theatricality, down to the tile floor where the couples socialize. The dialogue can be fascinating; its interest is expanded by the dynamics of gesture and frequent embarrassed hesitations, pushing the story (never really predictable) to the borders of ambiguity, of irony. And the cast is uniformly superb in all their mood swings, their assertiveness and uncertainty.
Myrna Holden’s script, which Gary Graves notes he became acquainted with in the Berkeley Rep’s Writers Group he conducts, is refreshing, filled with ricocheting dialogue and a wayward, shifting situation that reminds one of the descendants of Strindberg and O’Neill, like Pinter and Albee (and Ingmar Bergman onscreen) who specialized in ritual or game-like encounters between couples where the social masks are torn off on the stages of the 50s and 60s. It’s a half-century later, and A Step Away is a little more reticent, as are the times. The waywardness is checked, and it ends rather suddenly, if gracefully, on an off-beat.
Myrna Holden’s a psychologist with obvious talent as a writer; perhaps her interest in “the process” occasionally took precedence over the playing out of the situation and the energies revealed. These psyches have become characters, but—in the passive-aggressive manner attributed to them—they seem to pull up a little short. The social milieu’s well-defined (as when Tilly says to Emma: “It stopped being fun. Dan’s insatiable. Time to turn it off. When you eat good food, drink good wine—you just want more of it.”). But there’s something missing—as Dan says in his manipulativeness, “But you don’t agree; you hold something back.”
That recalcitrance and ambiguity has yet to be converted completely into irony, into an action played out onstage for an audience which has begun to feel (as the characters have—and as Euripides’ plays were described by Antonin Artaud) “we don’t know just where we are anymore.”
Maybe the scene between Dan and Tilly near the end should be cut (the audience has seen most everything through Jess and Emma’s perspective), and the play—played out a little further, in whatever direction the contradictory forces at work take it, making more of its lineage in dramaturgy.
But A Step Away is no early draft of a script. At a time when many of the bigger theaters are presenting new plays that are, at the very least, a few workshops away from being stageworthy, Central Works has taken a fascinating text and developed it brilliantly onstage. A Step Away is certainly a play to see—and see again.
A Step Away, Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant. 558-1381. Tickets $8-$20. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m., through Nov. 21.›