Are we what we hoard? Anti consumerist phenomena like the minimalist living movement warn us of the dangers of our stuff. Our desire for it can keep us from finding our own meaning, or at least enjoying the things that really matter.
In their crisp, moving show Tonight Nothing,which enjoyed a brief run at Portland’s CoHo Theater the last weekend in July, creator/performers Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis see the stuff we can’t let go of as symbols, even talismans, of our past experiences and personalities. (Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.) The question for their characters, Kaye and Em, is whether they hold us back, or help us figure out who we really are. It’s not about the stuff — it’s about the people who carry it with them.
In a series of vignettes interspersed with letters spoken aloud to the audience by each actor to each other, we see Kaye and Em’s close friendship evolve, from college through various life changes — marriages, birth, love affairs. As their decade-long conversation proceeds through periods together and apart, both physically and emotionally, we see how very different these friends are — and how their friendship abides those differences.
Kaye is impulsive, a free spirit who flees broken relationships by overstuffing her backpack and lighting out for Europe or other fascinating destinations — anything to distract her from facing her own flaws that led her into bad choices in the first place. In the opening scene, she tells the audience that wherever she runs, she brings too much with her —and not just physical objects like her red electric wok. Kaye clings to the artifacts of her past — whether carried in her backpack or temporarily stowed in Em’s attic, just as she does bad patterns and partners.
By contrast, Em, a scientist moving implacably forward to achieve her professional and relationship goals, leaves behind critical parts of her identity, sacrificing what gives her meaning. She’s a planner, an achiever, a fixer, trying to balance work and family. This poignant crossing of the two friends’ contrasting relationships to their shared past gives the story its complex power.
More than halfway in, a third character appears. Clark plays Em’s time-traveling long-dead great aunt, Lela, a real historical character here portrayed as a kind of trap-shooting Yoda with a Dolly Parton delivery and a no-nonsense Marie Kondo attitude. Her fantasy / magical realist attic apparition dispenses life advice in the guise of (sometimes overstretched) metaphors about shooting, and in recounting her own ways of courageously confronting setbacks, even tragic ones.
The episodic structure is risky: without establishing a clear complication or conflict at the outset, a narrative can lack tension and a reason to keep watching these women chit-chat. We don’t really learn what the big story is until near the end. That means our interest depends solely on how much we care about these characters.
Fortunately, we care a lot. We want to see the next episode not necessarily because we want to know what happens next in the story, but because we care about these women — precisely because they are not perfect, in ways that most of us aren’t perfect. The play might be stronger with a clearly posed complication, but it works without it.
That’s mostly due to the duo’s superlative acting and rare chemistry. The program noted that Tonight Nothing has been in development for two years — and it shows. Their crisply flowing, well rehearsed dialogue sounds like actual conversations rather than just exchanges of lines, with sporadic, subtly woven-in exposition for the audience’s benefit. You can easily imagine them as real though very different friends who stick with each other (mostly) despite those differences. When they do finally have it out, the encounter feels tough and real, and the switch in who’s deceiving herself and who isn’t feels both surprising and logical — a tribute to the well thought out script.
Take this sequence, when newly single Em has picked up a guy at a bar and brought him back to the tiny one-bedroom apartment she shares with Kaye — where he promptly passes out on the couch.
K: I wanted you to have a good time on this visit. You need to sow your wild divorced oats, right?
M: Oh right. It was certainly fun to talk to a stranger at the bar. (sigh) Well, the bed’s taken, and the couch is taken. Where should I sleep?
K: (Laughing, no response)
M: I’m serious!
K: I know. (Laughing still no response)
M: Do I have to sleep in there? With a stranger?
K: You were just going to have sex with him!
M: That’s so different. (beat)
Damn. (long beat)
K: How are you doing?
M: Fine. I just don’t have the words. It’s just over. I came home and his things were gone.
K: He didn’t tell you he was leaving?
M: No. I came home and his laptop was gone. That was the most obvious thing. Then I walked into the bathroom and his toothbrush was gone. Then I went into the bedroom and not all of his clothes, but the top layer of clothes, the clothes he actually wore, they were gone. (Beat)
It had been shitty for so long but I didn’t think it was bad enough that he would walk out the door. No. He didn’t tell me he was leaving.
Clark, an experienced multifaceted musician, pulls triple duty. She provides both brief, percussive, recorded between-scenes interludes covering set rearrangements, contributes live performances (in Lela’s character) of Appalachian ballads and instrumentals, and as Em, she enlivens the action with plaintive original folk songs delivered in a warm voice and delicate guitar. They sounded great, but the old-timey instrumentals might have been better suited strictly to the scenes with Lela (who’s visiting from the early 20th century), or even while the audience was coming in, rather than sapping dramatic momentum with solo music spotlights. In fact, I’d love to hear Clark apply her serious songwriter chops to some of Lela’s more blatant hortatory passages, rendering them as Appalachian-style song lyrics than on-the-nose dialogue advice.
The play avoids earnestness and gooeyness by adroitly sprinkling humor throughout, both from the characters’ points of view and at their expense — an endearing drunk scene, a meditation fail, a breathless run in the park and other moments keep us chuckling. Lewis is a gifted comic actress in the Carol Burnett style, with expressive eyes and body movement. You root for her Kaye despite her flaws, which include her fear of facing them — until she does. Clark’s wryer deadpan humor suits her more restrained characters. They complement each other perfectly.
Even as a sparsely staged workshop production, Tonight Nothing’s tightly paced direction packs in plenty of dramatic development without feeling rushed. Director Courtney Freed keeps characters and story moving, cleverly highlighting even wordless gestures and expressions — a pen placed on a table, a photographer’s pose, the arrangement of items on the floor — so we know exactly where to look and what it means.
I was glad to learn that Tonight Nothing will return after its creators absorb what they learned from this incarnation — including, I hope, repairing a couple of flaws. Compared to the easier-to-understand Kaye, Em’s character is underdeveloped. Her challenges and shortcomings don’t come into clear focus until near the end, when she’s cracking under the stress of parenthood — and even then, we’re told them directly, rather than their being revealed through action. Even though the flaws seem real, the reveal rings false.
Clark plays her a little warmer and more empathetically than the character and script really suggest, which makes Em’s transformation toward the end feel unearned. Clark may have worried about distinguishing her from Lela, whom she also plays, but Em needs a bit more of Lela’s unsparing drive to believably respond as the script depicts.
The play sputters to an end with an unnecessary, ham-fisted sequence of three monologues directly addressed to the audience, bookending Kaye’s fourth-wall busting opening monologue. You can almost imagine Oprah nodding supportively as each character tells the audience exactly what they’ve learned and felt in the preceding hour. It plays like a back-cover blurb in an inspirational ‘you go, girl!’ self-help book, violating the atmosphere of intimacy between friends that made what preceded it so engaging. What resolutions characters find in a story are almost always better dramatized by showing through action rather than telling. In her closing speech, Lela tells the audience directly: “it’s up to you how you interpret the facts.” Like the characters they play so beautifully in this otherwise smart show, the creators should listen to her.
Otherwise, the production’s admirable tightness and lightness help save it from bad chick flick-style wallowing in endless relationship discussions that I worried about after reading the vague, misleading summary promo material. Happily, Tonight Nothing turned out to be much smarter and realer than I and my female companion feared, earning a strong recommendation from our different-gender perspectives. It raises important “what do I really want” questions — and not just about relationships — that males also need to hear but too rarely broach, in my experience, and does so in a realistic yet entertaining style. I can imagine it breaking through beyond the usual theater mob and reaching the Eat Pray Love crowd. It just feels real. Tonight Nothing is really something, and bodes well for the new partnership it signals between Lewis’s performing arts nonprofit company From the Ground Up and CoHo Productions.