- It's no Wisteria Lane, but the players are just as desperate in A Narrow Bridge.
Could it be that pervasive, mind-rotting soft rock is the cause of all our problems? If you hear one more repetition of the Cowsills' "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" and head out to kill someone, would any jury convict you? Of course not. A person can only be pushed so far.
Soft rock isn't the obvious trigger for the unfortunate incidents in A Narrow Bridge (now at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company), but it's certainly a primary element. This world premiere of Clevelander Cliff Hershman's drama is yet another plunge into the crowded waters of suburban ennui and dysfunction. And while flawed in some respects, a strong cast brings the well-written script to life and manages to dodge a variety of clichéd potholes.
A merged family is living in an upscale home in Toledo. Mom Edie and her physically precocious middle-school daughter, Kim, share a roof with second husband Blue and his estranged grown son, Willy, who has just hitchhiked from the southwestern desert for a visit. It doesn't take long to reveal some squalid undercurrents in this plastic setting.
When they're alone in Kim's room, boozy Blue mouth-kisses and roughs up his stepdaughter, telling her they need to conspire against Edie so he can use his wife's savings to fund a shady business scheme -- and, of course, make Kim a fashion model. Kim seems alternately attracted and repulsed by the old man, but is drawn to his strength.
Meanwhile, Edie is oblivious to her hubby's unfatherly activities, busying herself with low-impact exercises done to the stylings of the equally low-impact Barry Manilow. Fresh from the land of cacti, ganja-devoted Willy is given to obscure philosophical riffs ("I became the desert," "I'm a ghost," etc.) as he tries to connect with Kim, hoping to warn her about letting his father get too close.
This all seems terribly familiar on the surface, since many plays delve into the creepy underside of apparently placid middle-class life, where the conflicts are often fueled by excess liquor and dope. Indeed, who among us hasn't driven past a new development of six-figure homes and wondered what evil shit goes on behind those triple-glazed windows and faux colonial entrances?
But playwright Hershman demonstrates admirable restraint, never pushing the scenes too far and sharing just enough information to keep the tension properly taut. He also manages to develop a shared theme for all four characters: the urge to "get out." Willy got out long ago by running away, but Blue and Kim want to get out by escaping to Mexico -- after Edie signs over the big loan to her husband. And Edie wants to finally escape the pain of her first marriage and settle in with Blue.
Under the direction of Sean McConaha, the Bang and Clatter players create a realistically oppressive atmosphere. While they occasionally talk over each other and fumble some cues, their energy propels the piece forward so insistently that the glitches become almost irrelevant.
The emotional center of the play is Edie, and Anne McEvoy draws a sympathetic portrayal as she tries to deal with Blue's panic attacks and reaches out to her daughter. Caught between trying to discipline Kim and apologizing to her for past familial difficulties, McEvoy's Edie is a parent with some problems common to many. As Blue, Chuck Simon underplays his role, making his sudden flare-ups with the two kids even more arresting. Although his volume now and then drops below the audible range, Simon is a believable cretin.
As Kim, Jennifer Hoffman has seen a few too many birthdays and is a bit well developed to be a credible junior-high schooler. But wisely, she doesn't overdo bubble-gum-popping mannerisms to compensate. She focuses instead on Kim's pubescent dreams and is particularly effective when she smokes pot with her "brother." Willy is portrayed by Tony Weaver with a cool detachment, even when forced to confront his father about his scuzzy relationship with Kim.
Ultimately, the play seems to be missing a couple of scenes as the second act winds down. Once the suburban secrets are all spilled, the story totters into a sort of shaggy-dog ending, with the wrong characters talking to each other about the wrong subjects. Unaccountably, after such a detailed and involving setup, the playwright decides to have the inevitable sparks fly offstage and not in front of us.
This soft-focus conclusion is not only deflating for the audience, it's unfair to the playwright. He deserves better from himself, especially since he obviously can create compelling and actable dialogue. With a more powerful ending, The Narrow Bridge could give the Cowsills the beating they deserve.