Upon its 1979 premiere, Michael Weller's Loose Ends was hailed by many as the most acute depiction of the Me Generation in American theater. After skewering Vietnam from the perspective of misguided anti-establishment college seniors in his breakthrough Moonchildren (1971), then following these moonchildren into their groping thirties in Fishing (1975), Weller cemented his reputation with Loose Ends, an account of how lovers Paul and Susan, high-minded products of the Õ60s, fared in the 1970s.
A topical play, however, risks becoming anthropological -- one era's touchstone can easily become another's dross. And the times haven't been good to Paul and Susan. As if checking off some buzzword list, Weller's characters "find" themselves, respect each other's "space," invade it, dabble in casual sex, experience its malaise and confront materialism, personal commitment and individual growth.
They meet in Bali in 1970: he's a disillusioned former Peace Corps volunteer; she's a globetrotting free spirit. This chance encounter in paradise leads to casual dating in civilization. Soon they debate getting serious, decide to live together, marry. For a time there's bliss, but conflict follows as their emergent -- and diverging -- self-definitions result in a mutually wounding relationship. They try open marriage, separate, get back together, divorce, reunite for one final moment, then part forever. Too inward-looking to converse meaningfully, they violate the one inviolable requirement of marriage: trust.
Thematically, Loose Ends is superficial and unconvincing. Superficial because the conflict, however serious, is merely this: obtaining their individual "Me"s prevents them from becoming a viable "We." Unconvincing because of the climax: Paul, unfulfilled in his work, wants a family; Susan, seeing children as a threat to her burgeoning career, wonders why she isn't enough for him. He agrees to relocate to help her career if she'll leave pregnancy up to chance. She agrees, but when she gets pregnant, she secretly has an abortion. Thus she becomes the heavy, cheating by her own standards on an offer willingly made.
There are other problems besides this anti-feminism. Weller posits that middle-aged self-centeredness and empty materialism replaced the 1960s' youthful energy and idealism -- not exactly news. And he seems to suggest that love won't work if you have to make deals, which isn't necessarily so. Each scene unfolds in a different year of the '70s: one supposes the romance would be broadened by social contexts such as Vietnam and Watergate, but it isn't: Paul and Susan are so self-absorbed that all they do is talk about themselves. Furthermore, scenes end just when they get interesting, when the two try to open up. And even if their inability to communicate is Weller's point, he doesn't let us see them fail. Instead, he just moves on. Secondary characters are stock, if not completely unnecessary. A crucial scene occurs -- symbolism, anyone? -- on Independence Day.
For a play like Loose Ends to work, we have to have an emotional investment in the characters: we need to root for them individually, and as a couple, even through their inevitable separation. In Thompson-Rios Productions' offering, we do, but way too late. In his revelation speech toward the end of the play, Craig Smith makes us feel Paul's bitterness about the implications of his wife's furtive abortion. And in the final scene, when Adrianne E. Atchley's Susan says good-bye to Paul after a brief, tender, but melancholy interlude and goes off to meet someone new, we're as stunned as she is that their bond is finally severed. But while the actors do make these last moments devastating, for most of the play they don't realize their characters. Smiling abjectly too much and speaking without nuance, Smith fails to convey Paul's disillusion, his searching behind it or his somewhat hostile charm within it. Atchley, though very effective at looking apprehensive, limits Susan to this one response; we don't sense her intensity, her yearning or her leaps and bounds. Most crucially, the two don't fill the stage with what brings the characters together: passion.
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With blocking that doesn't allow them to look each other in the eye, first-time director Sandra Rios doesn't help things. And while introducing each scene with flash pictures and slides of the characters fits with Weller's snapshots-of-a-decade script, doing so unvaryingly for eight scenes quickly becomes gimmicky. About the only good decision Sandra Rios makes is to omit the nudity the script calls for. Hippie clothes and turtlenecks appear, but so do '80s power suspenders and slicked-back hair, while bell-bottoms and leisure suits, for some reason, don't. The mostly period music is so choice and omnipresent that it overstates its case. The supporting cast, for the most part, provides little support.
"God, why does everything have to be so complicated?" one character asks another. It's not. And failing to realize that is the difficulty with both Weller's play and Thompson-Rios' production. Too bad the new company, sucked in by the love-story angle they hoped would be eternal, chose this for their initial show. One hopes they don't end up as the title suggests -- at loose ends.
Loose Ends presented by Thompson-Rios Productions, plays through September 3
at Houston Skyline Theater, 1617 Fannin, 759-0701.