Fertile Ground Review: Middle Names

Serious dialogue drama in a hot hotel room

When playwright Corey O’Hara and director Nate Cohen pitched me their play during Fertile Ground Speed Dating, I may have gotten the wrong impression. I heard “high stakes game of rock-paper-scissors,” and “the room ends up covered in paint,” and I thought “college comedy.” Maybe even slapstick. How else does paint get everywhere? (It’s Nickelodeon circa 1985, and you just said “I don’t know.”) I didn’t imagine the intractable tension and despair that would accompany these gestures. Maybe I would’ve, had they mentioned THE GUN. And yes, Chekhov, it fires.

middlenames_downboatarts_2_photocreditnatecohen

Middle Names is confined to four characters, a hotel room, and real time—constraints that make staging very manageable, but dialogue writing extra-demanding. Fortunately, playwright Corey O’Hara has great instincts, winning influences (Sam Shepard, Martin McDonagh) and the benefit of plenty of prior workshopping arranged by Lewis & Clark College’s theater department. That combination already helped make the play a candidate for the Kennedy Center’s John Cauble Short Play Award, and will make it one of the highlights of Fertile Ground.

Three of the story’s four characters are connected via their dearly-departed friend MacLean, whose ashes they’ve just strewn in the ocean. The drug-addled Eliot Grail (Brandon Cieslak) was his brother, the stoic Raymon Veldman (O’Hara) his best friend, the pregnant Birchie Lee (Jahnavi Caldwell-Green) had him for her secretly gay but openly religious boyfriend. The fourth character, Gabriela (Liz Ghiz), more or less comes with the hotel, but ends up revealing a back-story with Eliot.

For young people, these characters have lived implausibly full lives. At just 17, Eliot’s already managed to get married and divorced in Mexico, and has apparently forgotten it ever happened thanks to a roaring cocaine habit. Birchie’s gotten pregnant, and Ray’s impregnated her, before either have even learned to drive. And the absent MacLean has dispatched himself, letting his hopelessness spread to his loved ones like a contagion.

This is a sophisticated script. It’s edgy, taut, and unpredictable. It’s unsafe, from beginning to end. And I have no doubt its producers will take that as a compliment. Now, for a few finer points:

Eliot’s manic rantings and erratic moves, and his friends’ attempts to ignore them, are initially the center of attention. He’s hopping on the furniture, scratching, sweating, over-gesticulating, and wiping his nose. But Cieslak’s delivery leaves his actual lines (no pun intended) less intelligible than they might be. I say “might,” because Eliot’s para-psychotic speech pattern—the type oft noted on hospital charts as “word salad”—might be senseless, or it might reveal the speaker’s synaptic leaps in a way that’s actually rather intriguing. Whether Eliot’s lines are total nonsense or pig-Latin logic is difficult to tell, as the actor pants his words semi-intelligibly between antics. If his lines aren’t coherent anyway, then of course we don’t need to hear them specifically, and his delivery’s fine as-is. But if there are thrilling turns of phrase in there…then they need to be brought out.

When chamber maid Gabriela (Liz Ghiz) talks to Eliot, her lines are also somewhat rushed and overborne by the acting. Does she share a lot of details, or only paint a cryptic picture? It’s hard to tell through all her yelling, and that becomes important because her story isn’t typical teen fare.

While we’re at it, there’s something else a little “off” about this Eliot character: his supposed cocaine addiction would make more sense as meth. Perhaps coke’s higher social standing makes that drug more narratively approachable for Lewis & Clarkers than glass would be, but that very trait also makes it less plausible in the story. Show me inept teens in dirty white t-shirts crashing in half-renovated hotel rooms…and there be the monsters of meth.

As Ray, O’Hara gives himself a role that first seems deadpan, but is actually grieving lost innocence. “Have you had sex?” he asks Eliot, adding, “Well, don’t.” As he opens up, we find him reframing his inner pain into an accusatory neurosis. People smell disgusting, sex feels invasive, coffee drives you crazy. Everything sucks. He sullenly shuts out his baby-mamma Birchie, seeming to hope that ignoring her will make her (and the condition) go away. As an actor, O’Hara wisely hangs up his writer hat, inhabiting the story without any apparent vanity at having penned it, and saving the plainest lines rather than the most eloquent for himself.

Jahnavi Caldwell-Green has a heavy burden as Birchie; she comes out and says what the others are suppressing, and it’s she who brings the story to a fever pitch of despair. In her pinnacle scene, she tearfully, sweatily wrestles the phrase “hot and heavy” back into its original meaning: she feels heavy. And it’s hot. Any winking teenage application of the phrase as a sex descriptor is rendered obsolete, even as the character has felt her sex appeal replaced too soon with the discomfort and obligation of pregnancy. It’s a hard role to play perfectly, but Caldwell-Green pretty well nails it.

I’m left with the hunch that this is exactly the type of show serious theater buffs are hoping to see at a fringe festival: a dialogue-centric, dramatic new work that debuts new talents, with plenty to recommend it, yet a little room to grow. It continues at Action/Adventure Theatre this weekend.

____

A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Comments are closed.