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Fearless

by B.A. Nilsson on August 31, 2011

The Last Days of Mickey and Jean
BY RICHARD DRESSER, DIRECTED BY JOHN PIETROWSKI OLDCASTLE THEATER COMPANY, BENNINGTON, VT., THROUGH SEPT. 4

A friend who works for the state described the office scene last Friday: an exodus of fellow workers fleeing to sandbag their homes in advance of Irene. Friday night I attended this Oldcastle Theatre production in Bennington, Vt. In a preshow speech, artistic director Eric Peterson explained that many of the many empty seats were the result of fear-based cancellations.

We should be accustomed to living in fear. It’s the prime driver of political decisions and TV show popularity, even though it’s mostly hype. True fear, however, is living on the run from the cops, stuck, say, in Paris. You can’t talk to anyone but your long-suffering girlfriend, and there’s a Fiat that seems to be dogging your hotel.

That’s the situation Mickey finds himself in as Richard Dresser’s new play opens, and he’s in an irritable mood, too cranky to accompany faithful, long-suffering Jean to the Louvre. As played by Duncan M. Rogers, Mickey is a likeable guy with an ascerbic, Bill Murray-esque edge.

The sense of paranoia he conveys suggests that whatever fear he himself may have inspired has long since oozed out of his system. Rogers brings a measured weariness to his characterization, and physicalizes Mickey with very good (and usually comic) results. He’s a bit of a whiner. He’s a hypochondriac. And he’s utterly dependent on Jean, although he’s loath to show it.

Jean (Bev Sheehan) has stood by her man through his multiple marriages (“The only reason I ever got married was so they wouldn’t testify against me!” is his explanation), and remains the calming voice to his near-hysteria. She’s a longtime victim who, in middle age, is finding her own voice—and, in Sheehan’s hands, she’s an all-too-believable character. She and Mickey spar with great affection, but there’s change in the air.

Taking inspiration from a real-life case of a couple on the lam, Dresser’s script finds dark-edged humor in the couple’s plight. Sometimes the playwright works too hard to drive the laughs, as with a sequence based on common Boston names. Some of the moments are brilliant, as when the wonderfully long silences following a suicide pact erupt into a series of confessions, each more fantastic than the last.

Eleven scenes take us back and forth from a hotel room to a café and to a doctor’s office, and the piece is rounded out by a trio of other characters played with brio by Oliver Wadsworth.

He comes onto the scene as the hapless Bobby, a lonely man with a John Waters aspect and the mania of Victor Spinetti, who meets Jean in a Louvre-side café. When the actor appears again as the over-the-top Dr. Schockley, there’s still a Bobby-ish feel to character, which will make sense in the end. And Wadsworth’s turn as transvestite Tinsel drives the piece to an even more frantic high. The complete conviction with which he plays the part gives it a surprising depth.

Bobby, a fellow Bostonian, sets his cap for Jean, who enjoys a kind of attention she’s missed for years. Homesick, she sneaks phone conversations with her sister and nephew. The sense of dramatic foreboding culminates in an offer for Mickey to take a (probably illicit) job in Aruba, but we know things will come crashing down—and Mickey discovers that the fortune he invested with his brother is gone. (“Nobody but a thief knows what a derivative is!”)

The play’s finale takes it almost to cartoon heights, but Dresser has deftly built the piece until we reach an ending that seems inevitable—and yet was newly written for this, the play’s second production.

Three theaters joined in producing this show, including Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, whose artistic director, John Pietrowski, helmed this production with style and wit, and Morristown, NJ’s, Bickford Theatre, where the production will move in late September. Meanwhile, the Oldcastle plays through Sunday, in a space that suffered only a little water in the basement. Go support Vermont, and enjoy a dark, amusing show.