Are the nonstop national news alerts making you anxious, desperate, and easily triggered into dread and nausea? Well, you’ve got nothing on Greg (Mark Rubin) – he’s up for tenure. He and his wife Emily (Heather Perry Weafer) are about to host tenure committee heavy-hitter Professor Stilton (Lisa Muller-Jones) for cocktails, and his career depends on absolutely nothing going wrong. What could possibly go wrong? Ever so much, in Portland writer and actor Brent Askari’s giddily uncouth farce Cocktails and Travails, winner of the 2015 Neil Simon Festival National New Play Contest. Christopher Price directs a boisterous production with a smart, very game cast, at the Theater Project.
How many times can a new person think they’re the only one spiking the punch? A bunch of times, as it turns out, and it somehow keeps being funny. Askari’s is not a bedroom farce but a farce of food and inedibles, alcohol, and hi-lo cultural divides – cheese curls, coconut massage oil, whether mixed nuts may be served in their tin. Greg and Emily subscribe to both the Atlantic and People, and the décor of their apartment itself is somehow a marriage of starter academic class – dark green walls and ruddy wood, modern art, an Asian table – and casual low-brow – a frumpy gray couch, rainbow striped blanket, lots of pink flowers.
The constellation of the show’s characters and relationships are true to classic formulations of farce. As Greg and Emily, Rubin and Weafer do a super job both complimenting and ramping each other up; we see their differences even in the manner in which each pours vodka into the punch. Rubin’s fiercely insecure, buttoned-up Greg is impossibly taut, jittery, in constant seized motion, while Emily, in flowing clothes, is maternal, competent, and warmly measured, but with her own limits and exasperation. The situation is tenuous even before anybody uninvited shows up.
Which naturally they will. With the unexpected arrival of Greg’s deadbeat brother Dylan (Keith Anctil), stubbly in baggy gray everything, I felt actual panic on Greg’s behalf. Anctil’s in fine comic form playing Dylan’s disastrously misguided fraternal affections as earnest and good-natured; and he’s in good company with the marvelously brash Kate O’Neill as fellow tenure-deterrent Margaret, Emily’s loud, red-haired, low-brow, eternally wronged mom.
And what of the feared Sphynx-ish historian, Professor Stilton? Muller-Jones has her enter with a bored sideways non-smile that shows you exactly how she feels about being there, and we see that Greg had every reason to be paranoid about being judged. In large tortoise-shell frames and a blazer, Muller-Jones’s Professor perfectly exudes the wry, quietly disinterested superiority of someone confident in their power. Her role requires a lot of reaction and nuanced comedy over the long haul, and she misses not a moment as she quietly grows queasier and more confused. Later, when she stumbles getting up from the couch, she slurs, with priceless dignity, “Tripped.”
Askari’s script has plenty of fun verbal moments that highlight failures of verbality, as Greg fakes intellectual conversation (“Some theses are flawed and boring, but this one was flawed and interesting”) or describes the as-yet-nonexistent hors-d’oeuvres (“They look like food. Like little food”). And the physical gags are gleefully, unapologetically crass. Pacing careens from the get-go, and though things slow a bit in the second act, the farce sustains the momentum of its low-brow hijinks.
And the low-brow eventually proves useful, of course, in rectifying the wreckage it has caused for Greg. Perhaps that will prove true on the larger cultural stage as well. I wouldn’t count on it, but we still do need to laugh.
Cocktails and Travails, by Brent Askari. Directed by Christopher Price. Produced by the Theater Project, in Brunswick, through February 12. Visit www.theaterproject.com.
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