The Muscles in Our Toes

Stephen Belber’s latest dark comedy comes to Labyrinth Theater Company.

Matthew Maher as Phil, Bill Dawes as Les, Mather Zickel as Dante, and Amir Arison as Reg in Stephen Belber's The Muscles in Our Toes, directed by Anne Kauffman at the Bank Street Theatre.
Matthew Maher as Phil, Bill Dawes as Les, Mather Zickel as Dante, and Amir Arison as Reg in Stephen Belber's The Muscles in Our Toes, directed by Anne Kauffman, at the Bank Street Theatre.
(© Monique Carboni)

A high school reunion is the perfect place to set a play about growing up, and that's just what dramatist Stephen Belber has done in his latest, The Muscles in Our Toes. This scathing comedy finds a group of friends returning to their old haunt and opening old wounds. But in Anne Kauffman's production for Labyrinth Theater Company, Belber's play is anything but typical.

Director Kauffman and scenic designer Lee Savage use the angular layout of the Bank Street Theatre to their advantage as they create an extremely realistic rendering of a public school's choir room. Musical notes line the walls; a piano and drum set sit forlornly in the corners. Rows of multicolored metal chairs sit on risers. And five people who have never grown up take their old seats, giving us a front row to their drunken mayhem and rehashing of arguments that first took place two decades ago.

At the heart of the play are pals Les (Bill Dawes), Reg (Amir Arison), Phil (Matthew Maher), and Dante (Mather Zickel), who have reunited minus one member of their social circle, Jim (Samuel Ray Gates), who they believe is being held by terrorists as a prisoner in the African country of Chad. Fearing the worst but hoping for the best, these four idiosyncratic personalities start hatching a plan, one that might involve Paintball, to rescue their friend. Or blowing up a local FBI office. Or blowing up a file cabinet within a local FBI office. Or none of the above. They can't decide.

What Belber presents are four men (and one woman, Carrie, played by Jeanine Serralles), who, despite being on the other side of 40, are still the same as they were 25 years ago. Dante, divorced and in the process of converting to Judaism, still harbors a simmering anger at the Persian Reg, who once slept with Carrie, Dante's then-girlfriend, in the school nurse's office their senior year. Carrie, meanwhile, is now a divorcée herself, prone to screaming and drinking too much, wearing a party girl dress (Emily Rebholz's costumes are perfectly normal for all six actors) and snuggling close to anyone who gives her the right time of day. While they all have seemingly high-powered jobs, Les, a fight choreographer for film and theater, is the only one who has actually seemed to move on with his life, married with four kids, and is, naturally, belittled by everyone.

Staged in "real time," the work gets significantly darker toward the end, when Jim suddenly reappears and the men are forced to reexamine themselves and the lives they've been living. It takes the playwright a bit too long to get to this introspection, and when it suddenly appears, after 70 or so minutes of hilarious, nonstop bad-taste laughs, it feels like an unearned payoff. Still, Kauffman's staging is pitch perfect, and with its top-notch ensemble, The Muscles in Our Toes is a riot, and one of the more weirdly enjoyable theatrical experiences so far this summer.

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