With the exception of a few chairs and a table, seated against his will in a mostly vacant Phoenix warehouse where the old plastered walls are peeling revealing the brick beneath, is a mailman (Ryan Goldfinger), kidnapped, his wrists restrained. Behind him stands a reprehensible young ponytailed thug named Phil (Devon Nickel) and he’s pointing a gun.
The mailman is frightened, confused. He has no idea why he’s there, plus he doesn’t understand the questions fired at him by the gunman. Nothing is making sense, except maybe one thing: whoever the kidnapper is looking for, this is clearly not the guy. With little concern for the consequences, the pitiless gunman shoots the mailman from behind. Fade out.
It’s the opening salvo to a new, black comic play, Anything You Hear and Only Half of What You See, a world premiere by valley playwright Ron Hunting, presented by Stray Cat Theatre running now until December 10 at Tempe Center for the Arts, and like anything new at Stray Cat, a never-before-seen production is like catnip to a reviewer.
In a market where plays and musicals are often repeated, sometimes with alarming regularity, there’s something both refreshing and exciting about seeing a brand new play that has little to no history. It also presents a challenge. There’s nothing to compare it with; no previous openings in other cities where other reviews have already covered the ground and started either a positive or negative word-of-mouth. You’re watching a literal clean slate, void of the usual hype, and that in of itself should be something to entice. Though once that humorless, opening scene is concluded, the innocent mailman’s body is removed, and the play begins, there’s an immediate sense that you might have seen it before, or at least something like it. It’s origins, or certainly its inspiration, soon become clearly evident.
As the second scene unfolds, from a heated conversation between the not altogether bright gunman and a second, somewhat brighter though impatient character, Steve (Nathan Spector), we learn that the ponytailed kidnapper was supposed to have kidnapped a certain mailman on a specific route who delivered mail to a specific house. Not only had Phil grabbed the wrong guy then killed him, he’s also killed a second, innocent mailman, though Phil insists he had to; it was in self-defense. A third attempt finally results with the kidnapping of the right mailman, George Ruth (David Weiss) and it’s here, under interrogation from Steve that things finally start to fall into place; at least, to a degree. Peering through the window of a house where he was attempting to make a second delivery, George can’t be altogether certain but he thought he witnessed a murder. His conclusion was that it was a drug deal gone bad. “Do I need a lawyer?” asks the mailman. “A lawyer is the last thing you need,” responds his interrogator.
True to the play’s title, much of what we both see and hear isn’t exactly what we’re meant to believe. Like the best of mysteries where events have already occurred, through hints, declarations and slow reveals, the puzzle starts to form a picture, but there’s always a few pieces missing; nothing’s ever quite complete. It’s where information is held back, not just for our enticement in the David Mamet rule of playwrighting where nuggets of information are purposely withheld in order to always want to know what happens next, but also for the safety of those under questioning. As things progress and three more characters are implicated by association and then kidnapped for questioning – two more mailmen (Doug Waldo and Van Rockwell) and a nerdy, bespectacled post office accountant (Eric Zaklukiewicz) – all four men do and say whatever they need to keep themselves alive for as long as possible, particularly when the woman-in-charge, the unmerciful Jackie (Ryan L Jenkins) is flown in to tidy everything up.
What strikes you within the first few seconds of mailman George’s questioning is how unusually articulate everyone is. As the 90 minute play unfolds, each has a speech, a monolog of sorts, and while some of the writing is often sharp and darkly witty, the dialog is delivered by each character with the same theatrical voice, and it’s author Ron Hunting’s by way of Quentin Tarantino. In speech alone there’s little individuality.
The twists and turns as events develop are well planned, and more importantly, unpredictable. There’s no guessing where things are headed, and the surprises and reveals are good ones. Plus, director Louis Farber handles the movements and the placing of the several characters well, though for a better visual effect it might have looked more interesting had the four kidnapped guys sat at a slight angle to correspond with the impressioned angle of Michael Peck’s warehouse set rather than in a solid straight line, facing the audience.
Whether you’ll laugh or even find the play funny may have a lot to do with the size of the audience. A packed house tends to respond more demonstrably than a half house. The opening scene where the frightened, shivering mailman is executed should have set the tone for what is to follow, but the seriousness of what you’ve just witnessed and the murder that follows set the wrong one. Had the play opened with the conversation between the ponytailed Phil trying to explain himself and his exasperated senior, Steve, where we only hear of Phil’s murderous misjudgment through conversation rather than having witnessed it, the play might have had a stronger beginning. Recoiling from something genuinely unpleasant makes what follows more difficult to find amusing.
The Tarantino influence is heavy throughout. Characters speak at length in clever asides and reference pop culture to illustrate meaning – Edith Bunker, Keyser Soze, The Partridge Family, The Blue Man Group, and this being set in Phoenix, Wallace and Ladmo are mentioned – and while it all may raise a smile of recognition, it also feels just a little false and sometimes misplaced. When the kidnapped men are to have their headphones blasting deafening music placed back over their heads in order to isolate them, we already know from earlier moments that the pain of the volume is enough to make their ears bleed, and that’s a serious thought, but rather than cower at the notion of having to suffer the ordeal again, they bicker about having to hear the same Partridge Family song and whether the TV band ever had a third album. Funny in a sit-com perhaps, but this is meant to be Tarantino-esque black humor, and the comical bickering needs to develop naturally at the right moment. Here it feels as though it’s trying too hard.
Photos by John Groseclose
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