“When a character is drunk, he or she will be a truth-teller.”
At least so said Adam Bock, in a program note when his play The Drunken City was produced several years ago at Playwrights Horizons in New York. That sounds like an iffy maxim for real life, but as a dramatic precept it has its virtues. For one thing, as Bock reasoned, he could “write a play where everyone is drunk —that way truth’ll be flying around everywhich everywhere.”
Not all truth is profound, of course, but in Theatre Vertigo’s spirited new production of The Drunken City at the Shoebox Theatre, plenty of it is entertaining.
The “city” in question doesn’t seem much like Portland, but Bock and his work have been regular visitors here. He’s taken part in JAW, Portland Center Stage’s play-development festival, three times since 2005, a decade in which PCS also has produced his plays The Thugs, The Receptionist, A Small Fire, and The Typographer’s Dream. Rose Riordan directed all of those, but K.L. Cullom was poised to take the handoff here, having directed Bock’s Five Flights while earning her MFA at the New School for Drama, then assisting Riordan on Typographer’s Dream.
It also feels right that The Drunken City landed with Vertigo rather than PCS; concerned primarily with the romantic misadventures of twentysomethings, the play fits well into the smaller company’s youthful wheelhouse. Even if you — like the majority of local theater audience members — are older than the characters here, the vagaries of love and loss, risk and doubt, remain easy to relate to.
Then again, the danger here is that this territory might easily feel frivolous, no more than a live-action sitcom. The story tosses together two sets of carousing friends — a trio of women out on a bachelorette bar-hop, and a pair of guys, one of them still smarting from a break-up a year ago. Moments after their chance meeting on the sidewalk, sad-sack Frank and bride-to-be Marnie, both slippery with alcohol, slip into a kiss, then another and another, to the increasing alarm of Marnie’s friends. Melissa, who we learn used to date Marnie’s fiance, calls for reinforcement in the form of their gay (and sober) friend Bob, and as they all stagger around and splinter into smaller groupings the necessary interactions and revelations accrue.
Ibsen it ain’t. But Bock has a knack for studding innocuous settings with dark barbs and doomy discord, nodding toward deeper, disquieting implications in the quotidian. Here, that comes in a few forms. Most puzzling is an occasional rumble, as of a train passing nearby, that sends the characters careening across Matthew Jones’ graffiti-splattered set, suddenly more off-balance than sparkly pink cocktails already have made them. (To judge by YouTube clips, the Playwrights Horizons production used a tilting stage; the effect in either case is a momentary, apparently random chaos, a noisy vicissitude of the city.)
More effective are the odd asides uttered (or, in one deliciously creepy case, sung) by Linda, the most tipsy and most anxious of the women. “I drink too much,” she says, then adds softly as a sort of non-non sequitur, “the world scares me.”
It’s Linda who registers the danger, perhaps even the epic quality, of the sorties these suburbanites make. The small town that all six characters, coincidentally, call home, comes to represent the comforts and constrictions of conventional gender roles and relationship rules. The city, by contrast, is a vector of uncertainty, equal parts excitement and unease. “The city’s like a monster, like a sleeping dragon or some dark creature in the night that cracks open an eye and whispers dark dangerous ideas into your ear,” she says. “It just stares at you and dares you to come closer…It’s fun!”
And, well, it is fun.
Bock doesn’t have anything really incisive to say about the ways we chase or catch or fumble love, but he shows us some of that action playing out in the shadow of its big, inchoate emotional effects. As importantly, he has a sharp ear for sloppy language — the tumbling rhythms, fuzzy logic and choppy dynamics of very casual conversation.
The prospect of watching actors pretend to be drunk, even for a brisk 75 minutes, may give most of us pause, but Cullom draws terrific performances here all-around. Murri Lazaroff-Babin nails Frank’s mix of woundedness and impetuosity, and has the show’s funniest moment with a one-man boy-band dance routine. Holly Wigmore as the edgy, ambivalent Marnie, Nicole Accuardi as the self-righteous, take-charge Melissa, and Shawna Nordman as the quietly off-kilter Linda all navigate rapidly shifting affects with aplomb. Vertigo regulars Tom Mounsey as the even-keeled, warm-hearted Bob and R. David Wyllie, who has some amusing dance moves himself as Frank’s loyal pal Eddie, anchor and balance the whole.
However tenuous their love lives, these characters are folks you’re happy to spend the time around, and they make this trip to “The Drunken City” feel like an evening’s refreshment.
Theatre Vertigo’s The Drunken City continues through November 21 at the Shoebox Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.