Pot Kettle Black: not as disturbing as it wants to be

 

Vagrant Players Theatre Society is presenting Pot Kettle Black at the PAL Theatre.

This bunch can act and the play is rewarding — sometimes.

There’s about half of a very good play here and 100% of an excellent cast.

In Pot Kettle Black, playwright Bill Marchant exploits the old characters-get-drunk-and-confessional/confrontational cliché. This approach has always struck me as a shortcut that gives alcohol too much credit but, at first, Marchant does a very nice job of working it.

That’s largely because he’s great at dialogue. His six characters have crisply distinct voices. Sarah, who is vague and amiable, is throwing a birthday party for herself at the home she shares with her mysteriously silent husband Charlie. Brenda is a firebrand of solipsistic assertiveness while her bisexual husband Bill waffles in empathy. Jessica is a ditz and, in the most interesting characterization of all, her husband Alex is a provocative asshole who claims to be fearless and puts everybody else down. When one of the gang accuses Alex of releasing his inner moron, he replies, “My moron has no inner. My moron is balls-out.”

Marchant’s characters are almost as full of surprises as real people and that’s saying something. (I’m going to give some of these surprises away — as well as a crucial plot point — so, if you’re sensitive to spoilers, stop reading now.)

In the early going, when the increasingly drunken friends are sharing their experiences of love and romance, Brenda recalls a high-school crush. They were in band together and, when he emptied his spit valve, she wanted to swallow the contents. In a more tender vein, Jessica remembers opening her heart to love when she was ten years old and sitting next to her female cousin watching The Summer of ’42 at a drive-in.

The first half of Pot Kettle Black rides the wave of the eccentricity and specificity these stories provide. And it’s fueled by the tension created by Alex’s dick-headedness. I wanted to stride up onto the stage and pop the guy. That’s a good thing.

But then Charlie speaks and Pot Kettle Black takes an unproductive turn. Responding (I think) to Alex’s assertion of imperviousness, Charlie breaks his silence to say that he doesn’t care about anybody or anything. He doesn’t love his wife, his kids, or any of his friends. He never has. He’s been faking it.

This freaks everybody else out — presumably because they think he’s right and they can’t face their own hollowness. They spend the rest of the play trying to convince Charlie that he must feel love.

But that dialectic has no resonance — for me at least. I feel plenty, thanks very much, and I have no doubts about my capacity. And, in its second half, the play depends on faulty logic: every time one of the characters accepts any kind of compromise, the script frames that as proof that they don’t feel, which is nonsense. It also repeats the idea that animals don’t have emotions. Who’s talking here? Descartes?

Charlie’s assertions that life is nothing more than “a loose combination of habits and rituals” and that the only real impulses are to fight and to fuck are, as Brenda correctly points out, sophomoric. The central idea that everyone is hollow gets repetitive. And the quality of the dialogue degenerates. Near the end, Marchant gives Brenda a big, self-consciously poetic and philosophical monologue that’s the clumsiest writing in the script. And the play’s action becomes increasingly contrived and sensationalistic.

But I did say that, under Matt Fentiman’s direction, the acting is thoroughly excellent. David Lennon’s Alex is remarkable. Emotionally, Lennon turns on a dime as Alex and it’s not incidental that he gives the character great comic timing. Playing Jessica, Missy Cross straddles ditziness and lyricism while maintaining a seamless continuity of character. Suzanne Hepburn brings laser focus to Brenda. And, although Cody Kearsley doesn’t have a lot to do as Charlie — the guy is kind of a cipher — Stephen Park and Leah Jacksties find the confused humanity in Bill and Sarah.

There’s a device in the play’s latter half that I particularly enjoyed: as the other characters are enacting a major psychodrama, Jessica, who’s hammered by this time, is looking for her shoes — blue, with a buckle. It’s a great juxtaposition, Marchant at his best.

The guy has real talent as a playwright. I wish he hadn’t gone down a blind alley with this one.

POT KETTLE BLACK By Bill Marchant. Directed by Matt Fentiman. A Vagrant Players Theatre Society production at the PAL Theatre on Friday, February 21. Continues until February 29. Tickets.

 

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