The Optimist’s take on two brothers’ quarterlife crises as they share a motel room during a particularly fraught weekend both engages with and pokes fun at its subject matter—the post-college Sturm und Drang of being an American twentysomething— but the play’s self-awareness cannot disguise or excuse the sometimes trite and cliché moments of self-revelation.
Reviewed by Ilena George
In an Econo Lodge room strewn with papers, clothing, mattresses and other detritus, twin brothers Declan and Noel attempt to come to grips with their father’s remarriage to a woman who may have been his mistress while he was still married to their mother. Noel finds violent and creative outlets for his rage against his father, involving his father’s love letters and a home-made boxing ring. On top of all the family issues, Noel’s first girlfriend died suddenly and is being laid to rest on Monday.
The brothers are both inwardly focused, overeducated and loquacious to a fault. “We’re just a couple of chickenshit, dippy-ass little wussies,” declares one of the brothers. Declan (Chris Thorn), is a horny and scatological intellectual who spouts out ten-dollar words in an often droll and disaffected manner (“I’m a soft bipolar, Noel. Please. Allow me some undulations of disposition. You know, humans are quite surprising if you give them the chance.”). But that’s not to say that his one-liners don’t zing; to wit: “The soul, too, has a virginity and must bleed a little before bearing fruit.” Playwright Jason Chimonides’ script abounds with witty remarks, dirty allusions, and random tangents where high art and popular culture collide and explode.
The other brother -- Noel (Matt Burns), the eponymous optimist -- feels everything more acutely than most people. A common reaction of his is to curl up on the floor, overwhelmed by everything from his friend’s ashes, to his ex-girlfriend Nicole’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) boyfriend’s llamas’ names. “It’s not hip to feel so much these days,” says Nicole (who is also in town for the funeral), claiming he belongs in the 19th century among the romantic poets. In contrast to his brother’s relentless monologues, Noel is more physically and aggressively expressive; he decides to challenge his father to a boxing match in the boxing ring he created within the motel room.
The play is its best when at its most idiosyncratic: between Chimonides’ often hilarious script and the sometimes frantic energy of Jace Alexander’s direction, the brothers are unique and compelling. But chipping away at this distinctive lacquer reveals a plot that is more ordinary than anything: Noel is still in love with Nicole and his feelings for her come bubbling up and add to the mess all over the room. The dialogue between Noel and Nicole as they try to navigate toward each other just doesn’t spark the way the rest of the play does. As the straight foil to the brothers’ particular brand of crazy, Nicole appears dull in comparison to the two brothers, who are, at times, literally bouncing off the walls. Too much navel-gazing makes the denouement drag and the play ultimately sacrifices its unique and witty repartee for the heavy and familiar bludgeoning of a relationship drama.
[As an aside to the kindred spirits who will find this news exciting, beginning April 8th the role of Declan will be played by Ryland Blackinton, guitarist for the band Cobra Starship.]
The Optimist by Jason Chimonides, directed by Jace Alexander
Ground UP productions at The Abingdon Theatre (312 W. 36th Street)
Tickets: $20 (212) 352-3101, www.theatermania.com
March 20th- April 12th, Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.