FG review: No Pixie Dream Girls in ‘International Falls’

Thomas Ward's new play starts as a comedy then gradually deepens into something much darker

Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith star in "International Falls" at CoHo

Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith star in “International Falls” at CoHo

By EMILY STEVENS

If Thomas Ward’s “International Falls,” a CoHo production receiving its world premiere, was was just a play about a one night stand, it would be a pretty good play, but it isn’t. It’s more than that:  The hook-up between a traveling stand-up comedian and his small town groupie is a platform to explore humor, adultery, faith and family. The result is a tragically funny (or funnily tragic) study on the connection between pain and comedy.

Tim (Isaac Lamb) is a comedian celebrating the final night of his Midwest tour in style with Dee (Laura Faye Smith), a receptionist at the Holiday Inn in desolate International Falls, Minnesota, where Tim is both gigging and sleeping. After opening with a cringe worthy second-base encounter, and an “I’m sorry…what’s your name?” moment, Dee and Tim get to talking.  That conversation, fueled by their physical closeness, reveals two very funny interesting people.

6727812097_c97a2f222eAmid their their riffing off each other, pinging jokes back and forth, something deeper starts to emerge. We learn that Tim is irrecoverably separated from his wife (and son) and Dee has been stewing for the past three days after discovering evidence of her husband’s infidelity. Both are looking at drastic changes in their lives as they have known them for the past 15 years. Ward’s dialogue (he’s a former stand-up comic himself and now is an actor/playwright in Minnapolis) is natural, and Lamb and Smith, directed by Brandon Woolley, play it with impeccable timing, zinging punch lines and pithy breaks of silence.

Isaac Lamb is simply fantastic, rattling off Tim’s stand-up monologues like a natural, but also digging deep into his hopelessness. Lamb builds layer upon layer into this character, a calloused skin of swaggering jokes covering a tender spot for his son’s dinosaur pajamas, and we’re left wondering about his fate until the very last moment.

Of course, Laura Faye Smith’s Dee adds a lot to this. In any other comedy Dee would swoop in all Manic Pixie Dream Girl[1] and save Tim from his terminal malaise, but she is refreshingly complex, and, this isn’t necessarily a comedy. Telling jokes about porn cockily, but incredibly shy when she undresses for the first time (surprisingly, even though the play opens with a sexual encounter, this doesn’t happen until about halfway through the play…thus the mysterious “clothed female, naked male” quote from Arts Watch’s Fertile Ground preview), she constantly asks Tim if he wants her to leave.   Smith creates a fully realized woman, who is a loving mother and an adulteress, a good Lutheran, a small town girl, and a pretty darn good comedian.

So stigmatized and romanticized in American culture, depression and its sometimes  tragic results are incredibly difficult things to write about, and almost impossible to do well onstage. Thomas Ward’s format is perfectly balanced between gut wrenchingly sad and funny, and Brandon Woolley direction is dynamic, but measured.

“International Falls” is just one of CoHo Theater’s offerings to the Fertile Ground Festival. It runs through February 16, 2013; Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2.

NOTES

[1]  This phrase was coined by writer Nathan Rabin: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This phrase was originally used to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown, but can be used to describe an unsettling percentage of female characters on the stage and screen.

Here’s a trailer for the show.

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