Consider this thought experiment: Imagine two plays written by the same playwright, directed by the same director and produced by the same presenter theater. Now imagine that one of the plays originated in the time-honored fashion of authorship — from inspiration through completion — written by a single human; imagine the second was birthed institutionally, with all the dramaturges and notes and rewrites that are suggested by the process called “commissioned and developed by the Center Theatre Group.”
Would an audience be able to discern a qualitative difference?
The answer, at least in the practical demonstration provided by the two Julie Marie Myatt world premieres currently playing in repertory at Road Theatre Company, turns out to be a resounding yes. John Is a Father and Birder are as different as night and day.
The play that shines is John Is a Father, Myatt’s delicately affecting and finely tuned tale of an old man coming to terms with the past. The piece stars Sam Anderson as John Owens, a taciturn and somewhat enigmatic ex-con in a cowboy hat, a man whose placid exterior and laconic manner hints at a deeper and darker well of unspeakable regret over what he quickly implies has been a badly misspent life.
Just what the nature of John’s crimes might have been becomes the central mystery that Myatt skillfully teases out for the next 70 minutes as John journeys from Los Angeles to Phoenix to meet the widow (Hilary J. Schwartz) of his estranged son, a Marine killed in Afghanistan, and the young grandson (Elliot Decker alternating with Jackson Cole Dollinger) that now bears John’s patronym.
Along the way, we meet the play’s colorful cast of supporting characters, each whom represents a missing piece of the emotional puzzle that John is trying to reconcile. There is Edward (Mark Costello), the homeless and cantankerous Vietnam vet who is John’s only connection to his dead son; and there is the duo of Kenneth and Doug (Carl J. Johnson and John Gowans, in a wonderful comic pairing), the grandmotherly and doting gay couple who have achieved the long-term love and acceptance that has eluded John.
But the show is wholly commanded by Anderson, and rarely does a stage actor say so much with so few words. With his watery eyes and halting, melancholic delivery, Anderson endows John’s journey with the epic whisper of Greek tragedy. For Anderson, the character is part of a recent portrait gallery of nuanced anti-heros forced to confront ancient sins, including his acclaimed performance as Roy, the sexual molester of 2011’s Blackbird. Director Dan Bonnell’s sensitive, deliberate staging (on Tom Buderwitz’s brutalist, stacked concrete-block set) wisely allows Myatt’s cinematic scenes the necessary breathing space for each moment to land and for the emotional finale to feel absolutely earned. It's a terrific little show.
Which makes it hard to believe that the same director and writer could be responsible for Birder, the flyweight and eminently forgettable midlife-crisis comedy that CTG is co-producing with The Road on the same stage.
And while there are tantalizing moments in Birder, moments when the playwright seems to want to take her blandly likeable, upper-middle-class, primetime-TV Angelenos to a riskier, more socially trenchant and less stridently familiar realm, that arc never gets off the ground. Instead Myatt introduces Roger (Chet Grissom), a quizzically amiable, middle-aged accountant who, he eventually reveals, has secretly quit his high-paying job without telling his homemaker wife Joyce (Laurie Okin) or their two, never-seen adolescent sons. Worse, for the past year he has been spending the family’s savings on mortgage payments and private school tuitions, while clocking away his putative work hours drinking coffee at Starbucks.
The common denominator between the two plays is Myatt’s concern with a heartsickness she sees as gnawing away at America’s endangered middleclass and that has caused both protagonists to shrug off responsibility for their respective families.
While the consequences of alcoholism destroy Anderson's character in John is a Father, nothing so dark — or, really, anything remotely close to real life — ever threatens Roger. Rather, he has taken up birding in weekly Angeles Forest outings with Charles (the excellent Webster Williams), an older retired biologist and avid birdwatcher, and his daughter Rebecca (Monique Marie Gelineau). Roger’s motives at first have less to do with birdwatching than they do with bird chasing: Rebecca is a fetching creature and Roger is attracted. But like so much in the play, Myatt does little more than hint at deeper yearnings before recoiling back to the story’s sitcom surfaces.
The somewhat cherubic and bespectacled Grissom spends much stage time talking about birds, particularly about an inciting epiphany with a house finch, but the play never seems particularly interested in the subject, and rather than illuminating a deeper dysfunction, the language is never more than mere embroidery without poetic uplift. At one point, Roger invokes the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown and how “people are struggling — it’s the endless recession.” But it’s hard to care about a character who wanly throws his family in front of a fiscal bus and stops working because, “I didn’t see the point.”
Bonnell does his best to suggest there’s more to Birder than meets the eye or ear, but it is clear that the delicate intimacy of Myatt's writing that worked to such deep affect in John Is a Father has here been rather brutally railroaded. The job of selling the slight stage concoction is left to Grissom, whose coyly winking asides and one-liners suggest Drew Carey on something far less thought provoking or laugh stimulating than steroids.