David Prete, John Zibell, and Joe Roland in On The Line
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
David Prete, John Zibell, and Joe Roland in On The Line
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"Presenting a play is a rare thing for me, since I'm a director and rarely a producer," Mike Nichols declares in the press material for On the Line. "This play is one I'm proud to present." The reason for Nichols's unusual involvement is that the play's writer, Joe Roland, and his two co-stars, David Prete and John Zibell, were all students of Nichols at the New Actors Workshop.

For all I know, the show might even have been developed there as an acting class exercise. It concerns three buddies so close that they have a ritual whereby, whenever they share beer with a chaser, they dip a finger in each glass before downing the contents. To wit, it requires the kind of tight ensemble work that normally takes more than a short rehearsal period to achieve. And the acting, under the direction of Peter Sampieri, is simply stunning. Roland has given himself the meatiest role, but the tall Prete and the even taller Zibell also breathe invigorating life into their characters.

There's a sense that the boisterous acting is just as important as Roland's script, if not moreso, but this isn't to say that On the Line has value only insofar as it give three thesps abundant opportunities to strut their stuff. The play explores what happens when one of these longtime blue-collar workers -- two of whom are evidently college-educated -- accepts a management position just as a strike is about to get underway. The playwright is clearly impassioned by the management/union class differences that have been rampant in America for a great many years, and this places him within a tradition that stretches back as far as Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty.

As concerned as Roland is about union-breaking and industrial flight, his real theme is friendship and the tests to which it is put. He begins his play with a long and lively explanation of how the three friends bonded in first grade. This sequence demands the kind of split-second timing that Roland as the volatile Dev, Prete as the equable Mikey, and Zibell as the conciliating Jimmy have down pat. The actors' assembly-line timing is perfect, never moreso than when all three are firing their welding guns in tandem or when Jimmy and Dev hash out a problem while watching a football game on which Dev has placed a $500 bet.

Unfortunately, Roland is so deeply committed to examining the limits of friendship that he focuses on this at the expense of the other major issue he's raised. The 70-minute play, performed here with an intermission that stretches it to 80 minutes, is sketchier than it might be. There's certainly more that could have been said, and more characters might have been introduced, especially since Roland has Jimmy, Mikey and Dev repeatedly address remarks to unseen figures.

Moreover, though Roland presumably considers the ending of the play satisfying, some audience members will disagree. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the fledgling author tried out different conclusions for the Dev-Jimmy-Mikey combo but chose the wrong one to present as the lights dim for the last time. Still, for all of On the Line's shortcomings, Mike Nichols should be more than proud of his former students.