Garage Theatre Offers Two One-Acters That Talk a Lot, But Also Have a Great Deal of Heart

A friend of mine who is a bartender was asked the other night, “How’s life?” He replied, “Taking too long.” It’s a line from the film Kingpin, but it kind of defines some of what’s at work in the two one-acts by Scottish playwright Linda McLean receiving their U.S. premiere at the Garage Theatre (and directed by award-winning OC Weekly arts critic Dave Barton!).

The first, What Love Is, is about growing old, very old, with physical and mental frailty wreaking havoc on the body and mind. The other, The Uncertainty Files, isn’t about growing old, per se, but it is about maturing, regardless of age. While there is more enthusiasm and laughter in the latter, both deal with getting along on this sad bitch of an Earth, with all the external and internal complications that so often make that journey such an ordeal.

What Love Is focuses on Gene (Bryan Jennings) and Jean (Karen Kahler), an elderly married couple. Jean has suffered a stroke and needs a walker to get along, while Gene is forgetful at best, in midstage dementia at worst. Obviously married for a long time, they taunt each other, bicker, slow-dance, reminisce (haltingly) and attempt to make some sense of all that has transpired in their lives. We get fragments and clues through McLean’s disembodied dialogue, but it’s clear the couple can no longer care for themselves, which has forced their daughter, Jeanette (Victoria Marcello), into the role of caretaker. It’s not a job she relishes, and she can’t resist occasionally vocalizing her frustration at being a young woman charged with ministering to two doddering, fading souls.

McLean’s dialogue is reminiscent of Beckett, in that it’s fractured and doesn’t seem to follow any logical, coherent narrative. But rather than confound, that imbues every line with significance. While the riddle of who these people are and what exactly has led them to this point in their lives never seems clearly resolved, whose life ever fucking does? There is truth at work here, the kind that doesn’t look or sound pretty (one reason why this play probably won’t be in your local community-theater playhouse any time soon), but there is a kind of beautiful, if unhewn, symmetry at work. Although there seems to be a lot of words that don’t make sense, in reality, every word means something. It’s a verbal manifestation of what’s going on in the unspoken depths of this elderly couple’s relationship, something that, if one looked closely enough at one’s own relationship with other people, the world, themselves, might strike a haunting chord. As one stage direction in the play relates, Gene and Jean couldn’t “be more distant from one another. They couldn’t be more together.”

The second play, The Uncertainty Files, also deals with heavy stuff, such as mortality, loneliness, sexual identity, independence, and lots and lots of other things. But rather than the understated tone of the first piece, Barton and his enthusiastic cast of seven take a frenetic leap into this one, which is a series of monologues pieced together by McLean after recording a bunch of people responding to her request for them to talk about uncertainty.

Everybody’s uncertain about something; their sexual preference, their relationships, their parents, their politics, where they live, how to be good parents. It goes on and on, and honestly, it gets to be a little much after a while. Some of the monologues feel like those tired, dreary, lonnnnnnnnng diary confessionals on Facebook. These people really aren’t that interesting, and while what they’re saying is heartfelt (and constantly delivered well by the solid ensemble), it’s really not all that interesting either.

But Barton and his crew, particularly costume designer Cat Elrod, salvage all the emotional bursts. The cast is decked out in bright, colorful hues, giving the sensation of a rave rather than a support group, and it feels as much as a movement piece as a textual one. Each monologue is augmented by the rest of the cast doing something in the background, responding or interacting with whatever the speaker is saying. That keeps things engaging even when you’re tempted to mentally check out and contemplate your own pathetic existence.

Neither of these plays offers the style or comfort of the reassuring and familiar comfort food that helps keep the lights running at a performing space. But each is an intriguing and frequently absorbing experiment into how we often use words less to clearly communicate with one another, than to construct elaborate, if often unintentional, constructs to keep us from actually communicating. It’s not always clean, concise or even coherent. But it is, as Barton writes in his director’s note, “the way we talk to each other.” And the way we so often talk to ourselves.

What Love Is and The Uncertainty Files at Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 433-8337; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through June 11. $15-$20.

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