Marriage and all its ironic loneliness is the subject of some of the best plays in the American canon. And two of literature's most famous couples, the raging duo in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the solitary aching hearts bound for life in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, let us know that marriage can be absolute hell on earth. Both these great plays are evoked in local playwright Thomas Hagemann's Breakfast at Eight — a world premiere now running at Main Street Theater. Like his literary muses, Hagerman portrays the hellishness of marriage, but his affecting little gem also reveals some of the old institution's sweetest mercies.
Like Albee and O'Neill, Hagemann spins his story on a single set, and all the action takes place over the course of a single night. The entire play happens in the living room of his leading couple on the long night of their tenth anniversary. It's already late when Abby (Shannon Emerick) and John (Justin Doran) come stumbling through their front door. They've been at a party that celebrated both Abby's return to the stage after a long absence and the couple's decade-long marriage. The party was a surprise for Abby, all planned by her lawyer husband, who spent months making sure every detail was perfect for his beloved.
Abby is clearly in heaven, thrilled to have balanced so perfectly her life as wife, mother and sometime-actress. And John appears blissful as well. They both toast the evening and snuggle in close. Then John gives Abby his gift. It's a poem he's written for her called "Ode to a Tenth Year." The framed piece is the sort of stuff any wife would weep over; it's about how hard she works and how lucky he is.
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times, 713-524-6706.
Breakfast at EightThrough October 31. $24-$36.
But (and in every marriage there is always a but) things turn when Abby pulls out her gift. Clearly no one could compete with all John has done for his wife to celebrate this night, but when he opens the little box she gives him, he is more than disappointed — he's enraged. Abby's relatively thoughtless token becomes the catalyst for all John's pent-up resentment, the sort of resentment that takes ten long years, and one very complex party, to develop.
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His anger focuses most on a kissing scene in Abby's play. John thinks there's something more than acting going on. And even though in the past, Abby was "an actor people knew," someone who'd done a miniseries and films, John can't get over how intimate that onstage kiss looked. Abby protests, saying that she never even touched tongues with the man she's kissing onstage. This only makes John angrier for the obvious reasons. And after so many drinks and so much history, including the recent death of John's mother, the lawyer in John wants to indict his wife for a crime she insists she did not commit. He finally slams off, leaving her to celebrate alone.
In scene two, we meet Tom (Justin O'Brien), the actor who plays Abby's love interest in her play. He comes in from the very late night, after seeing her door opened, after John has left. Just what he's doing at Abby's doorstep at this hour, is best left unsaid. We'll just say, perhaps John's not as crazy as he seems.
Hagemann's script about one harrowing night when a couple fights for and against the intimacy of marriage has been given a powerful cast in Emerick, Doran and O'Brien. Emerick carefully and lovingly creates a complicated Abby who is smart, unpredictable and sexy, especially when she gets undone by the accusations her husband hurls at her. Her blond hair flies, and her blue eyes fill up with hurt. Doran's performance is rich and seductively scary. He's a powerful-looking man, and when he purrs out his love he's as charming as they get, which makes him all the more frightening when his voice booms through the theater with the sort of raging hurt that can only happen when one is very much in love. And O'Brien's Tom is the perfect foil for this difficult couple. His enormous, sweet eyes make him every woman's dream, and though he comes around for deliciously naughty reasons, he's a true innocent in his heart.
And Andrew Ruthven directs this talented cast with emotional clarity, driving the story toward the surprising end, which had the entire audience buzzing about the trials of marriage on their way out the door.