Hooray, a new play! Not something we get nearly enough of in Houston. And it’s written by a pair of Houston writers to boot? Double hooray! At least that’s the reaction of this critic, always eager to see new voices injected onto the stage. But with new comes risk. And I don’t just mean for the playwright, but for us as well. New is untested ground. New doesn’t always translate into great. In fact, new sometimes can be downright awful.
Such is the risk both we and playwrights Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie take with the world premiere of their play The Boundary, a story about the slippery nature of love and lust. Or the limits of marriage. Or the corporate evils of Big Pharma. Or radical politics. Or maybe the play is just an opportunity to test out the appeal of a yet to be finished schlocky romance novel.
At any rate, we have just shy of three hours in our seats to try to sort it all out.
The heart of what Williams and McKenzie give us is simple enough. Pulp-romance novelist Samantha (a charmingly composed Mykle McCoslin) may be a huge professional success, but her marriage is in the doldrums. According to her anyway. Her straitlaced, workaholic crises-management husband, Frank (played with far too little emotional engagement by Howard Block), thinks everything is peachy. So what that he’s a creature of habit claustrophobically linking specific meals and TV choices with days of the week and so what if his adherence to non-disclosure clauses means he never actually talks to his wife about how he spends his days. Never reading one of her bestselling books? Well, Frank’s just not a romance novel kinda guy. Neither apparently is he the kind of husband who says yes to his wife’s sexual advances. But he’s a good man and Samantha knows it. Even loves him for it. In spite of her boredom, she’s not leaving.
But when Samantha’s counterculture, hunky ex Christian (played with cool dudeness by Travis Ammons) shows up, the dichotomy between what she has in a contented if flameless marriage and the allure of a lusty but complicated existence with Christian forces Sam into crises.
But wait, did I mention that Christian is on the FBI’s ten most wanted list for being an anarchist bomb thrower? Or that the reason he suddenly showed up in town is that Sam has written a thinly veiled version of their romance in her latest book, The Boundary, making it seem like she wants him back? Or that the other reason he’s in town is that Frank’s latest client, Max (Jim Salners in splendid CEO bravado), runs a greedy HMO that Christian holds responsible for his ailing mother’s death a decade or so ago? An HMO that Christian has been sending bomb threats to, hence their hiring of Frank to help with the crises.
Perhaps if Williams and McKenzie left it at that, we could have enjoyed the somewhat convoluted love-triangle/angst-against-corporate-greed narrative. After all, there are some erudite bits of dialogue and comedic political swipes in the play. Director/scenic and costume Designer Malinda L. Beckham infuses the show with a cool factor in flow and appearance. Plus McCoslin’s graceful charisma as Sam is absorbing to watch.
But in enjoying it, we’d have to overlook that Christian has been blowing up banks for years but inexplicably is just now getting around to avenging his beloved mother’s death. We’d have to dismiss listening to long passages from Sam’s horribly written novel that fluctuate between saccharine and soft porn. And just how much soapbox preaching against everything from the Tea Party to corporate America to law enforcement can we listen to without wondering if this really is two different plays trying to coexist?
And that’s just Act One.
“I really hope Act Two will be shorter,” said the man sitting beside me. No dice. But worse than the excessive length is the totally off-the-rails nature of the rest of the play. Characters behave ridiculously, seeming not to care that 11,000 people are in imminent danger of death if Christian goes ahead with his plans. Absurdist FBI cops show up and confuse us all with their straight-faced buffoonery. We’re assaulted with a fantasy Dating Game segment pitting Christian against Frank for Sam’s love. We’re insulted with perhaps the most unrealistic unravelling of a marriage possible. And if that weren’t enough, we’re once again held hostage as Sam reads to us, this time from her reflective follow-up novel to The Boundary. Frankly, it’s a miracle I can relay this much information about Act 2 as zoning out in the face of such folly was an ever-present threat.
“Once you've dressed, and before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.” This famous quote from Coco Chanel is an apt bit of advice for Williams and McKenzie. In trying to stuff too many ideas, genres and styles of storytelling into the mix, the play ends up an overdressed fashion don’t.
Kudos can certainly be given to a duo of writers who have a lot to say and who at times say it with great panache. But until Williams and McKenzie learn to say more with less, The Boundary will remain a line better not crossed over.
The Boundary continues through April 2 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, visit matchouston.org. $20.