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Matthew Mabe in One Million Butterflies
(Photo: Narelle Sissons)
If David Mamet is interested in American men, then Stephen Belber is interested in American guys. Belber's 1999 play-turned-movie Tape offered insight into the psychology Belber grew up with -- that of macho young white guys. It succeeded in an early Neil LaBute kind of way, but seemed thin even at the time. Coupled with his work on The Laramie Project, a play created from interviews that he helped to conduct in a community of gay-bashing white males, evidence has not been ample that Belber has meaningfully changed from a self-described jock who "didn't get it" to become something more.

It's worth remarking that Tape was championed by quintessential American theater guy Ethan Hawke, who had sought a stage play to pair with an unrealized revival of Edward Albee's Zoo Story. That Albee shot down Tape (according to Belber) while Hawke chose to act in the film suggests, after seeing Belber's new play, that this writer's talent might be more screen- than stage-worthy.

To his credit, Belber's current piece at Primary Stages is ambitious. With One Million Butterflies, a solo show starring Matthew Mabe, the Juilliard-trained playwright is trying to show he can do more than document the varsity team captain in action. This time, it appears he has set out to haunt us, dazzle us with poetry and disarming eccentricity, and move us tenderly. Belber seems to want to take his place among verbally gifted writers of his generation like Melissa James Gibson and Rinne Groff, but we soon realize that he's just railing against his own inability to make the team.

Belber gives us Will, a self-centered guy and wannabe novelist who can't write to save his life and is determined to drag us down with him. As Will drives across the country, we are treated to Belber's loathing for the character's solipsism, verbal ineptness, and naïvete. Unfortunately, we don't get to laugh with the playwright at Will often enough because director Tyler Marchant hasn't helped Mabe with the comic timing needed to bust our guts with lines like "Dusk rolls across my windshield like a big vat of strawberry ice cream."

The ostensible reason for Will's trip is to find his vanished brother, but that never feels real. Will has a girlfriend named June who, he says with the smugness of a man sure of his passions and eloquence, "unleashes my rapture." But, as soon as the couple confronts an adult problem, Will recoils and departs in guy-like fashion and we realize to our horror that we're on a "looking to find myself" road trip with an overage frat boy whose missing brother is a red herring.

More of Mabe
(Photo: Narelle Sissons)
Outside of Will's one-man bad prose competition ("Ohio spreads before me like a flatulent old aunt to whom I owe an overdue thank-you note"), the playwright attempts to create a viable system of metaphors. For instance, Will's early passion for chasing leaves (poetically) and eating onion sandwiches (eccentrically) gives way to searching America (expansively) for his disappeared brother Tree (hauntingly). That Tree up and leaves, or that Will chases leaves and then Tree, are among the failed framing metaphors tarnishing the occasionally tender moments that draw us into the narrative.

Along the way, Will meets and plays the parts of several crusty characters -- stock types from macho American fiction, including three men in roadside joints who are entertaining as caricatures. Mabe does a good job with these, but in portraying Will's highly eccentric friend Chris or any female role (except June, whom he plays straight, as it were), Mabe resorts to gestures and voices that are an imitation of acting.

Narelle Sissons' set works well, if not managing to capture the more upbeat, innocent notes in the story, and Jane Cox's lighting shows inventiveness. But what are we supposed to get from this play? In published interviews, Belber has confessed to being a failed novelist and has even characterized himself as not very good with language. That's fine if you're improving, but don't flog us with your failings; there are so many good playwrights out there that one wonders, other than Belber's marquee value, what Primary Stages went for in this script.

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