Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Theater review: You won’t hate Hate Mail, the story of two people who meet online
Actors Ben Bryant and Natalie Howe share great chemistry -- no small feat since they are never allowed eye contact or physical contact.
Many of us, at some time or another, have felt the uncontrollable impulse to hide behind the written word when encountering confrontation.
Each perfectly composed thought becomes increasingly more creative and hurtful than the last. They are always the thoughts that we can't say in person to our opponent, because either we didn't think of it at the time, or we just simply know better and refrain. Whether through email, chat lines, the blogosphere, or Post-It Notes, in name or complete anonymity, it is ever so easy to craft the juicy comeback line, clever insult, sarcastic remark, or candid truth when one can't see the enemy face to face.
Churchmouse Productions (a division of Pegasus Theatre) takes this premise to the stage with Hate Mail, written by Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky. The result is one of the funniest and most inventive stage comedies you will see all year, bolstered by the fearless and nimble performances of Ben Bryant and Natalie Howe.
The concept is simple. Preston, an unsatisfied customer, writes a letter to a manufacturing company requesting a refund for a broken snow globe that he purchased new. "There will be a refund," he writes. Dahlia, the assistant manager of the snow globe company writes back, "There are no refunds." That is the starting point for an epic series of passionate back and forth correspondence between these two characters as they develop a weird and zany narcissistic attraction to each other through their Ivy League educated writing skills. Suffice it to say, they don't only write to each other about snow globes.
The playwrights Corbett and Obolensky intended to write a send-up of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, of which they both admitted having never read or seen. Their rules for creating this opus were that they could only write through the same sort of correspondence as their characters, revealing nothing to the other of what was to come. The end result has the feel of a long form improvisation as if it were prepared by the Second City in Chicago on a good night .... a very good night.
Corbett and Obolensky will tell you that good improvisation depends on accepting what has been given you. In their writing, they not only follow this theory but they also map out every latitude and longitude of this concept. No nook, cranny, or crevassed inch is left unexplored to the comic possibilities of a love affair told strictly through correspondence. They canvas the topic so thoroughly one should consider the subject closed.
True to Churchmouse philosophy, all the elements are driven by an "emphasis on the acting." In the black box theatre of the Bath House Cultural Center, set designer Rodney Dobbs appropriately adorned the four black columns surrounding the stage with FedEx envelopes, postcards, letters, faxes, and emails. Most of the banter of reading and writing the letters takes place center stage at the long boardroom table with two office/desk chairs. A scrim backdrop transitions colors often and seems to function as the characters collective mood ring, courtesy of lighting designer Sam Nance.
Costume designer Jen J. Madison dresses the actors through dozens of costume changes and in a wonderful gimmick, the characters are often fitted in multiple layers, and over extended sequences they will gradually pull off layers as their anger simmers closer to the boiling point.
Actors Ben Bryant and Natalie Howe share great chemistry with each other. This is no small feat when you consider that the characters are never allowed eye contact with each other, let alone physical contact. They do seamless work performing each letter as a stand-alone monologue yet also allow a fluidity and connection between them to be reflective of a conversation.
Director Jared Culpepper guides the blocking in clever and subtle ways for the purpose of some great comedic sight gags, but also to keep the back and forth flow from becoming tedious.
The first act consistently builds upon each laugh so that by intermission you are left wondering how the creators and artists will top it. Luckily, the second act underplays our expectations and goes in a deeper direction with these characters. Though it is not nonstop laughter, by then you are already hooked, line and sinker, to the full vision of this original comic confection.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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