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Peyton Thomas, Elizabeth Elkins, Leo Farley, Barbara Myers,
and Moira MacDonald in The Last Barbecue
(Photo: G. Alexander)
In her old act, Lily Tomlin used to quote a friend who maintained that a thing of beauty never hurries. In The Last Barbecue, Brett Neveu demonstrates that a thing of infinite sadness also may never hurry. He does this with extreme audacity and absolute authorial confidence. Tim Corcoran, who directs the local premiere of this Las-Vegas-by-way-of-Chicago import, matches Neveu for sure-handed risk-taking.

In a growing list of dramas by playwrights from Beckett to Pinter to their followers in which nothing happens or appears on the surface to happen, Neveu's Last Barbecue may snare the grand prize. Seismic emotional and psychological quakes, so sweeping that they're unrecordable, occur in the work during the12-hour time period depicted, as small-town barbecue that has been planned sort of happens. To wit, Ted and Jan have invited their son, Barry, and his wife, Tammy, to a weenie roast along with their neighbor Michelle, whose husband died while mowing his lawn exactly a year before.

That's the sum, if not the substance, of it. Yes, there is action--in which, as Kitty Kallen used to sing, little things mean a lot. For the first long while, Ted (Leo Farley) finishes mowing the front lawn (off-stage), then arranges the outdoor chairs and fills the cooler. Jan (Barbara Myers) sets down the chips and the pretzels. Jan wonders to Ted whether she ought to check with Michelle, and when Ted says he doesn't think it's necessary, she phones anyway. Barry (Peyton Thomas) and Tammy (Moira MacDonald) arrive, not having phoned to say they wouldn't be staying long. A misunderstanding ensues over where the briquettes are and if Barry ought to run to the store to get some. Left alone in the yard bordered by a downstage chain-link fence, Tammy flinches when Jan goes inside and lets the back door slam shut. Ted and Tammy make some small talk about Barry's 10th high school reunion, which is to take place later in the day and at which Barry's old girlfriend, Kathy, may be. When Barry returns with the briquettes and sees that he's soiled his sunshine yellow shirt and matching tie combination, he's fit to be tied. Having tried to get the briquette smudges out with Tammy's help, he returns to the yard and throws a croquet mallet at Barry, hitting him in the shin. This last gesture is the dramatic highpoint of the first act and more or less brings it to a close.

Act Two takes place much later in the muggy evening, when the outdoor thermometer has fallen from 90 degrees to about 78. Barry and Kathy (Elizabeth Elkins) arrive for a beer nightcap and a strained chat. In from New York City, Kathy's staying at a hotel called The Heartland (the only ironic touch in the play). Pressed by Barry, she insists that she recalls very little of her growing up in the nameless town. She also indicates, although Barry doesn't pick up on it, that her life in Manhattan is no bed of roses. Ted, having heard the two talking, comes in to send Barry home to Tammy. Jan, who has been taking a walk around the neighborhood, also shows up, wearing her signature all's-right-with-the-world smile--but she loses it when, at first, Barry won't agree to gather the croquet equipment. Eventually he does, leaving Ted to wax so illogically in front of Kathy that she departs. Barry, finding her gone, almost explodes at his father. Jan passes through again and goes silently back into the house, leaving Ted to once again tidy the premises.

The above plot (?!), deliberately outlined in detail, may give the impression that Neveu is perpetrating an insufferably tedious exercise. But this couldn't be farther from the case. The courageous playwright is writing about tedium--about people programmed to act as if everything is relatively copacetic when, actually, their emotional states are tattered. He is saying that when people have long since stopped truly listening to one another and have become inured to their disappointments and frustrations, they choose to feign a normalcy that is actually painful in the extreme. At part of their futile endeavor, they talk about immediate, relatively petty needs and concerns: where in the garage to store the briquettes, who might show up at a reunion and whether or not they will appear to have changed, why citronella repels insects, etc. When Barry brings Kathy back to his folks' home, he keeps up the lifeless banter with a succession of questions to which she answers, as often as not, "I don't know." In a moment of sudden interest, Kathy asks Jan, "How are you?" Jan pauses almost imperceptibly before changing the subject to a subject that demands nothing revealing. Perhaps the closest anyone gets to discoursing on a personal level is Ted's extended reminiscence about playing trumpet in the high school band, which is what finally drives Kathy off.

Most plays about everyday life cut to, or include, at least one intense confrontation, but Neveu has written a piece with virtually no highs and lows. Director Corcoran and assistant director MacDonald understand the pitfalls and they're not afraid to go right up to the edge of the Barbecue pit, as it were. They let that be known from the get-go: The audience stares at Steve Swenson's precisely right set for long minutes while, at first, only a lawnmower is heard. From then on, the co-directors confine the actors to only the most mundane reactions. The 29th Street Repertory troupe, specialists at portraying disgruntled blue-collar workers but here disallowed the opportunity for any scenery-chewing whatsoever, have followed orders, achieving their effects with smoldering looks, tensed muscles, and silent thoughts. Farley, thin and wired, makes Ted simultaneously defeated but indomitable; Thomas shows just how hot under his (yellow) collar Barry can get; Elkins, with only a few spare lines about the matter, conveys the message that her New York life doesn't amount to what she had hoped it would in her more naive days. Myers might perhaps have added one or two more colors to her portrayal of Jan, a woman so hampered at every turn that she's stopped turning. MacDonald sometimes loses the rhythms of a young housewife trying to convince herself that she's married the right man; but, more often, she has the appropriate deer-caught-in-the-headlights manner.

As Tammy, MacDonald wears a short, summer dress, a print features designs that seem to be shells (symbolic?) but look more like messy fingerprints. For this choice, and for the nondescript clothes worn by the others, the unidentified costume designer deserves a hand. So do lighting designer Douglas Cox and sound designer Tim Cramer, who also supplied the economical, original music. At play's end, a trumpet is heard playing not "Taps" but something that sounds ominously like it.

Although The Last Barbecue falls into the minimalist-theater category, it is also reminiscent of the work of other playwrights--most notably, William Inge, the poet of the discontented Middle West. But even Inge never made the point so forcibly that an "ordinary" barbecue can be, and often is, no picnic.

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