Don’t be intimidated by the small type on the program of Wyn Moreno’s play Strong Arm, receiving its world premiere courtesy of the Wayward Artist. Yes, it says “based” on The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, but you don’t need to know a thing about that 1895 play or what that goddamn seagull really means to follow along.
“Inspired by” might be a more apt description, as the only tangible connection between the two plays is the relationship between a domineering mother and her fragile son, both of whom share a similar pursuit (theater in Chekhov’s, athletics in Moreno’s) but have much different perspectives on how to pursue their calling—or whether it’s even worth pursuing. (There’s also a seagull parallel, but in Moreno’s play, it’s more of a broken wing than an actual dead bird; both indicate the loss of freedom and security.)
But while Moreno, who graduated from Cal State Fullerton with an MFA in theater and is obviously a phenom in his own right (some 12 miles north of where his play is being presented, he is one of the acting standouts in the Chance Theater’s well-received production of Ragtime), might think that name-dropping one of the finest plays by a master of modern theater gives his play a more literary cred, it’s not necessary.
Though Strong Arm is a new play by a relatively young writer and often feels like it—from its so-so character development to its turgid plot—there is ample evidence to suggest Moreno has thoughtful, serious intentions and the writing talent to make the audience care about them. It’s also one of the finer examinations of the mental side of competitive sports you’re going to find on a stage (then again, I can’t think of any others, as most sports-themed plays focus either on turning the stage into an athletic setting, such as bleachers, a locker room or boxing ring, or focus on the societal concerns around the sport, such as sexuality, racism and corruption).
In contrast, Moreno’s seems fully cognizant that while the great sage Yogi Berra’s line that “90 percent of the game is half mental” might not be good math, it has more than a whiff of truth about it. Elaine (Marika Becz) also realizes the importance of the mental game. She is a retired women’s tennis champion who has enjoyed her fair share of glory, but it’s clear she pushed herself to the limit to get there—and she’s determined to drive her son, Marshall, just as relentlessly.
Marshall (Dan Keilbach) may have inherited his mother’s athletic prowess, but he doesn’t have her burning need to excel—something Elaine constantly reminds him of. He is vacillating between going to college or declaring for the amateur draft, which his rule-bending agent (a very funny Craig Tyrl) predicts will see him taken in the first draft.
Nearing the end of his senior year, Marshall is under serious pressure to decide what to do—compounded by his mother’s boyfriend, Hank (Joseph Dunham), a former star professional player and pretty much a prick, and his ACT tutor, Allie (a sarcastic, brash Autumn Paramore), who has an agenda bigger than making sure Marshall gets high test scores.
Strong Arm probably wouldn’t be a full-length play without the other characters, but they don’t seem to do anything more than propel the narrative—and the two main characters—to its tipping point. Fortunately, that relationship is compelling, with Becz’s hard-as-nails Elaine managing to be both empathetic and uncomfortable to be in the same room with. Keilbach’s Marshall, however, is more of a cipher. We want to feel for his dilemma, but there’s a clinginess that makes it difficult to fully invest in his character. Only when Hank gets in his face do we see much fire in the boy; otherwise, he comes off as petulant, taking some of the edge off the intensity of the play’s climax
There’s one more aspect of Strong Arm that makes the Chekhov connection tenuous: the lack of subtext, Chekhov’s most brilliant contribution to modern theater. Often, it’s what his characters are thinking but don’t say that is most important. In Moreno’s play, everything is, mostly, on the surface. We know early on who these characters are and what they’re doing there. But that doesn’t mean what they’re saying is superficial. Instead, that means Moreno may not be Chekhov yet (then again, who is?), but he definitely knows how to tell a smart story well—and if he has a drop of Elaine’s drive to excel, his future in playwrighting is worth paying attention to.
Strong Arm at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (657) 205-6273; www.thewaywardartist.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through July 28. $15-$25.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???