Sarah Sutel, Christopher Yeatts,and Trevor Jones in Moonchildren
Sarah Sutel, Christopher Yeatts,
and Trevor Jones in Moonchildren
You might assume that a play written in the 1960s about a group of contemporaneous college students would seem hopelessly dated when revived at the dawn of the new millennium. But if the work in question is Michael Weller's Moonchildren, such an assumption is unwarranted, as the Oberon Theatre Ensemble's production clearly demonstrates.

Weller is (and was) too fine a writer to have fallen into the trap of crafting a play directly concerned with the specific social and political issues of the decade of hippies, free love, Vietnam, and the SDS. Such an approach might have resulted in a work that would strike present day audiences as fascinating but quaint. Though Moonchildren is set in "a student apartment in an American college town, 1965-66," recreational drug use is barely mentioned; and though protestation of the Vietnam war figures in the action, it's not the major subject of the play. Rather, this is a character study of a group of young men and women facing fears and options that are, for the most part, common to post-adolescent Americans of the modern era. (Of course, the fact that we have a new war going on right now makes the play seem even more timeless.)

The central character of Moonchildren--though he's not revealed as such until the middle of the second act--is Bob, a music student whose existential crisis is precipitated by his having received a draft physical notice just as his mother is dying of cancer. (Note the significance of the play's title). Bob is in a relationship with Kathy, but Kathy turns to the rather appropriately named Dick when she begins to feel emotionally neglected. These three share a student apartment with four other roommates: Mike and Cootie, a pair of wise-asses who don't know when to stop screwing around; Norman, a bookish math student; and Ruth, the voice of sanity. Also on hand but not in residence is the spacey Shelly, who likes to sit under tables (!) and winds up bonding with Norman. Aside from the comings and going of all of the above, brief appearances are made by the kids' landlord, a weird neighbor, Bob's uncle Murray, Cootie's father, a couple of cops, a milkman, and a guy who's doing door-to-door market research for the World Volume Encyclopedia company.

Moonchildren has an amazing 16 characters in all, here played by 13 actors, and one of the wonders of this Off-Off-Broadway production is that the performance level is so consistently high. In fact, three of the most satisfying characterizations are offered in smaller roles: Victor M. Treviño is perfect as Mr. Willis, the landlord, a man whose surface joviality doesn't mask his nasty prejudices; Ryan Paulson is a riot as the encyclopedia guy; and Brad Fryman is absolutely brilliant as Uncle Murray, whose unenviable task it is to give Bob the bad news about mom.

An ensemble moment from Moonchildren
An ensemble moment from Moonchildren
There is also fine work among the leads. Christopher Yeatts misses some of Mike's humor and Kate Ross tries too hard as Kathy, but these are miscalculations by obviously talented people. Scot Carlisle and Jordan Meadows are perfect in look and manner as the hippiesque Cootie and the nerdy Norman, yet both skillfully manage to avoid stereotyping the roles. Mac Brydon's understated performance as Bob works beautifully until the last 30 seconds of the play when, left alone on stage, he is unable to go the distance in the character's emotional breakdown. Jane Courtney's Shelly is hilarious, her eyes desperately trying to focus as she mindlessly blows soap bubbles (picture Lisa Kudrow on hash). Trevor Jones manages to make Dick seem not such a dick, even when he's petulantly demanding a full account of some missing hamburgers; and Sarah Sutel anchors the production with her natural, unaffected turn as Ruth. Though Tim Errickson might have given stronger guidance to Yeatts and Ross, his overall direction of the show can scarcely be faulted in terms of tone, pacing, and perception.

Denise Verrico's unit set--the kitchen/common room of the students' apartment--is right on target, complete with a half-tiled floor, a grimy window on which the word "Help" has been traced by someone's finger, and a dilapidated icebox bearing a hand-lettered sign proclaiming that "God is cool." Verrico's only error is in not providing a table large and high enough for Jane Courtney as Shelly to actually sit under; instead, the actress sort of just sits in front or to the side of it. Charles Foster's lighting is as adequate as can be expected given the dearth of instruments in deployment--due to budgetary constraints, one assumes. Julia Logan Trimarco's costumes add to the period feel of the production, as does the use of Simon and Garfunkle's "Scarborough Fair," The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," and other period recordings to introduce the various scenes.

In some respects, Moonchildren is of its time. For example, the word "fuck" is very frequently uttered. And there is an undercurrent of homophobia here, which is certainly true to period. But this is an important, vital work by one of our most extraordinarily gifted if underappreciated playwrights, and the Oberon Theatre Ensemble deserves great praise for such an excellent presentation.