The Comfort of Friends

One of the perks of directing a theater company is that once in a while you can take time out from the thousand headaches of management and play a big juicy role. About this time last year the Alley's Greg Boyd flashed and raved as Cyrano in an over-the-top production that brought mixed reviews and said a lot about the man leading the city's leading equity house.

Now Main Street Theater's artistic director, Rebecca Greene Udden, is playing the lead in a finely crafted play by Catherine Butterfield titled Joined at the Head. Although Udden chose the play with another actress in mind, when that actress moved out of town, director Ron Jones asked Udden to play the part.

What a good decision that was. This play embodies the literary sensitivity that has characterized Main Street in the 20 years since Udden founded it. And Udden is perfectly cast as the seemingly calm, unflappable novelist Maggie Mulroney, who has just written a best-selling comic novel (also titled Joined at the Head). As a writer, Maggie takes an observer's approach to life, watching what everybody else is doing and saying, but never quite getting in touch with her own feelings.

While on a book tour in Boston, she gets a phone call from her high school boyfriend, who has tracked her down at her hotel. She hasn't seen or heard from him in 20 years. Will she have dinner with him? Of course. And he wants her to meet his wife, who went to high school with them and who looked up to her. His wife's name is also Maggy; same pronunciation, different spelling. And there's one other thing: his wife is seriously ill with cancer.

So much for the plot. What makes this play work is Butterfield's use of Maggie as the narrator of the play, describing, interpreting, interrupting. But unlike narrators such as the stage manager in Our Town, Maggie is unreliable; she sees, and tells us, not necessarily the truth, but what she wants the truth to be.

There are times in the play when you want to jump out of your seat and talk back to Maggie. "For God's sake," you want to say. "Here you've just made friends with Maggy, found her company to be exciting. You've stayed in town longer than you had planned, she could really use a visit to the hospital and you're avoiding her, holing up in a bed-and-breakfast drinking wine and making excuses for yourself because you still can't accept the pain of your father's death from cancer two decades back."

But you can keep your seat; the other characters interrupt Maggie's narration for you. That it can break the third wall and break the illusion of simply watching these characters yet still be emotionally involving is one of this play's beauties. When Maggie the author is about to give it all up because she won't come to terms with the past, Maggy the cancer patient comes in to set her straight.

Such interruptions come, one gathers from the playwright's notes, because the play is based on her own experience with a close friend who died of cancer, a friend who wouldn't let her sentimentalize the disease or the disease's victims. Watching, Maggie the writer may want to put the ill Maggy on a pedestal; she may want to idealize the heroic relationship of the loyal husband. But illness has bred an honesty in cancer-stricken Maggy that the writer's art has failed to breed in her counterpart, and Maggy lets Maggie know how guilty she feels for being ill. Jim, who has not become the famous musician he dreamed of being, instead becoming a high school English teacher, lets her see how frustrated, angry and unsure of himself he is. Her high school comment that he was a loser still rings in his ears. Maybe he is a loser; he's losing his wife. He's not being invited to interview shows. But he has enough honesty to tell his old friend that he thinks her book is dishonest.

Director Ron Jones has staged the play with a suitably quiet earnestness. Udden exerts authority as the writer/narrator strolling about the stage making her observations, overhearing bits of conversation, interrupting the action. From the minute she steps on stage in a camel's hair coat, we like and trust her, which redoubles our commitment to watching her grow and learn.

Erica Garrison plays the dying Maggy with a sharp, fine intensity, aware of herself and not without her fears and jealousies. Robert Skehan plays Jim with impeccable decency and believability.

Butterfield has written a tender, thoughtful work about ordinary people trying to come to terms with friendship and love. This is the stuff of ordinary life. There are scenes here that most everyone has lived through: sorting through the old yearbook, rejoicing in the downfall of the class sex symbol, recalling a disaster at the prom, comparing the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. Butterfield takes these commonplaces and serves them up without platitudes.

And the Main Street production has met the test of Butterfield's craft. But the performance I saw was poorly attended. What a shame. The play deserves better attention and Main Street deserves better support. This production shows -- once again -- that Main Street is an invaluable asset to Houston's cultural life. Udden has been quoted as saying that this is a crucial year for her theater. She wants to move to bigger quarters and pay her actors an equity scale. She should go for it.

Joined at the Head runs through October 23 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.


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