Do we ever tire of relationship stories? Of inspecting and dissecting the details of romantic commitments? The permutations of being and then perhaps not being with that special someone flood everything from our music to our literature to our coffee talk. And yes, of course, the stage is no exception. It too is awash with narratives about coupledom.
Some plays, like Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter (later made into the musical I Do! I Do!), take the lengthy view, chronicling the ups and downs of a marriage over a 50-year period. A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters also considers the long haul, but instead focuses its 50 or so years on a physically separate but romantically linked couple. Clocking in at only two dozen years, Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year tweaks the idea of relationship plot further by presenting an adulterous couple who meet each other annually for a tryst.
While length is a crowd pleaser in relationship narratives, so is time. Or rather the warping of it. Harold Pinter uses this to great effect in Betrayal, employing moments of reverse chronology to tell the tale of a married couple’s infidelity. Jason Robert Brown has us coming and going in The Last Five Years, a musical about a couple’s demise told chronologically by the male and in reverse time by the female.
The point of all this is to say that list of relationship plays and the manner in which a playwright attacks the subject could go on and on. It may even seem like every angle has already been taken. But then, in walks 52 Pick Up.
Written by TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi as a one-act Fringe Festival play, 52 Pick Up uses both the idea of length and time in its tale of a relationship, but it does so unlike any play before it. In fact, not only is it different from other plays, it’s different from itself as well in a "no two performances are ever the same" fashion.
At the start of the show, our couple throws a full deck of playing cards in the air, scattering them around the floor of the stage. Written on each is the title of a scene in their relationship that the actors then perform in random order as they pick up the dispersed deck one card at a time until all 52 scenes are completed. There is a beginning, a middle, an end and an epilogue to their story, but how we come to learn about it is as unknown to the actors as it is to the audience.
On the night I saw the performance, 12 Step Program was the first scene chosen, and it has the nameless couple (James Monaghan and Robin Van Zandt as simply Man and Woman) in the early agony of their breakup. At the Apartment (first of the five scenes to follow) depicts the newly dating couple smoking pot and hanging out. First Kiss is, well, you guessed it. In Second Meeting, the couple gets to know each other a little better, and I Didn’t Say That is the first time we see them fight.
By now we have the groove of the thing. Van Zandt and Monaghan take turns picking a card, they read the scene titles aloud to us in cloyingly delighted surprise, perform the short, very short or very very short scenes at one of three locations on the stage (bistro table, stool, couch/bed) dropping the card into a large glass fishbowl when done. Wash, rinse, repeat.
What strikes most as we wade through the all too often clichéd scenes (e.g. I Can Change You), dud inside jokes (a running gag about cranberry juice and bladder infections) and seemingly endless dope-filled moments, is just how big a number 52 really is. No matter how quick the clip, how many different scenarios we’re witness to or what stage in the relationship we’re watching, the strewn cards barely seem to dwindle — a constant reminder that there’s that much more we need to get through.
There are bright spots that peak through the banality and repetitive mechanics. Beets is an amusing fight about the man’s insistence on disliking something he has never tried, and Where Did You Get This Thing? charms in its one-liner cleverness. But for the most part, watching this mismatched couple (she’s into astrology and socializing and is well travelled; he’s a practical homebody who has barely left the country) is a dull affair.
Not helping matters are Monaghan and Van Zandt, who can’t seem to rise above the unimaginative dialogue and give us a reason to like or care about them. Stiff in the love scenes and cardboard when fighting, neither performer elicits any empathy or engagement from us beyond our simply bearing witness. We are bored with their story and bored by them.
Director Linda Phenix does her best to give each scene a distinct feel and certainly has the duo utilizing the set in all its variations, but it all seems to come at the expense of teasing out a more nuanced and thoughtful performance from her cast.
As the final card approaches, we wonder if there’s going to be a flourish that will at least leave us with something to think about or delight in, but true to the format, the title is read, the scene is performed and the card is dropped into the bowl. Nothing more, nothing less. The lights go down and we take our leave.
In one scene, which in this instance came late in the show, the Man jarringly breaks the fourth wall to tell us he’s not sure why their relationship fell apart and it’s because of this uncertainty that they decided to do the show in this manner. The play, it seems, is an effort to allow us to examine the details and figure it out. But in suddenly mentioning not only the method of the play but the fact that we’re watching a show in the first place, the Man makes it hard not to think that he's apologizing on behalf of Dawe and Bozi for their potentially good idea turned gimmick.
And that’s what 52 Pick Up amounts to in the end. A substance-free play. What starts as a unique and intriguing way of looking at a romantic partnership is squandered by a tedious couple with not much to tell, show or teach us.
In this relationship play, it appears we’ve been dealt a bad hand.
52 Pick Up runs through February 28 at MATCH Midtown Arts and Theater Center, 3400 Main. For tickets, contact www.matchouston.org or 713-521-4533. $32-$47