A one-man stage adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s 1970 story “The Lost Ones” faces a steep climb to become the sort of thing you’d press upon your friends, being that it’s an unrelentingly dour and claustrophobic verbal tour of a prison of mysterious provenance—one much smaller and stranger than the one we all share.
The, er, water hazard that Ken Ludwig’s world-premiere farce A Fox on the Fairway has to clear is more daunting still: It is, as perhaps you’ve divined from the title, about golf, a game that large numbers of people have agreed to pretend is a sport. But of course the play is “about” golf in the way Bull Durham is about baseball, or Proof is about math. Golf is merely the stage across which Ludwig’s half-dozen characters dance a triple minuet of sexual, financial, and—if you insist—athletic competition. Each act opens with four of the actors hammily declaiming to the audience some aphorism about the game’s abiding frustrations. “Golf spelled backward is ‘flog’” was my favorite.
But here’s the good news: Everything golf lacks—speed, grace, the joy of watching bodies in fluid motion, and of seeing individual talents synchronize their gifts in shared pursuit—John Rando’s drum-tight production of Fox has in abundance. It’s a grand slam! A slam dunk! A Dunkin’ Donut hole! A hole in one! (You see? Even as metaphor, golf is approximately as interesting as watching some clown in regrettable clothes tap a little stationary ball across a manicured lawnzzzzzzzzzz.)
Anyway, it is the gearworks of the farce itself that is the show’s true subject. The plot turns on a wager between the presidents of two rival country clubs. Andrew Long, so frighteningly believable as the child killer in Studio’s Frozen a few years back, is here as far removed from there as could be imagined. His Richard, president of the Crouching Squirrel Country Club, is a malapropism-spouting cad who has successfully mala-propositioned every lady in his subdivision—a Woodsian accomplishment rendered all the more impressive by the fact that each sweater he inflicts upon us sears the retina more cruelly than the last. Golfers from his club have won a regional tournament for several years running.
Bingham, president of Quail Valley Country Club, thinks a new player he’s found will give him the advantage this time, so he overplays his hand. He can’t afford to be placing bets, but a farce wherein the characters make prudent decisions would be like a “sport” wherein the “athletes” are ferried around the field of play on a stupid little cart! Anyway, when Quail Valley’s sure thing evaporates, Bingham drafts his new assistant, Justin—an amiable kid, freshly engaged to Louise, a waitress at the club who hasn’t yet figured out she’s the smartest person there—into the tournament. There are a dozen more reversals to come, but all that matters is that Ludwig’s perfectly designed scenario gives every one of his half-dozen characters a credible reason to surrender all dignity to the pursuit.
Of course, a pristine score is no good if the band can’t play. Rando’s cast, most of whom are, like Long, more familiar from dramatic roles, throw themselves head-first into the fray, and there isn’t a laggard among them. Aubrey Deeker and Meg Steedle are guileless as Justin and Louise, the young lovers. Valerie Leonard is a holy terror as Muriel, Bingham’s exasperated wife. Holly Twyford is a boozy Pamela, a serial divorcee stapled into a series of topographic costumes that would do any Real Housewife proud.
At the end of the evening, the company retakes the stage for a sort of retrospective overture, re-enacting in the space of perhaps two minutes the blocking—though “choreography” is more appropriate—of the preceding two hours. It drives home how completely reliant on the ensemble’s chemistry this piece is, and it’s a joy to behold.
First among equals is Jeff McCarthy, who makes Bingham the kind of scoundrel you can’t help but root for. McCarthy is a veteran of Broadway, film, and TV, instantly recognizable to me and doubtless to tens of others as the marrow-sucking corporate suit from RoboCop 2 who thought the noble Robo was just an insubordinate, malfunctioning piece of company property. He learned the hard way that you can’t take the “cop” out of RoboCop, and just maybe that was good preparation for something like this, a comedy that hums like a well-oiled machine but retains its human soul. Also, “golf” spelled backward is “flog.”
The Lost Ones By Samuel Beckett Directed by Richard Henrich; At Spooky Action Theater to Nov. 14
Beckett’s “The Lost Ones” posits a capsule inhabited by 200 people who don’t know how they got there or what might exist beyond its walls. Carter Jahnke has performed his solo adaptation of it for years, including a run at the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival, but its new staging—the maiden production in Spooky Action Theater’s new black box space in the basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church—has reportedly been further revised. As it opens, a recorded echo of Jahnke’s sand-rubbed voice presents us with the sacred dimensions of this cage: Fifty meters around, 18 meters high. There are rotting ladders to nowhere and passages in the walls; there are people compelled to explore them and people who have given up. (“The need to climb is widely spread. To feel it no more is rare deliverance.”) Jahnke, dressed in a worn white shirt and torn jeans, his face wizened and sunburned, intones for us the social dynamics and deleterious physical and psychological effects of this close confinement as though articulating it for the first time. (“The dessication of the envelope robs nudity of much of its charm.”) Even on a gilded stage, this material would feel oppressive; in a basement, performed on a paint-spattered round tarp against a backdrop of gray brushstrokes, you feel a sliver of the delirium and claustrophobia that defines this world, and then Jahnke’s haunted performance twists the screws. He represents his fellow inhabitants with a little army of asymmetrical, long-limbed figurines, towering above them Gulliver-like. A few more of those crooked little statuettes would better sell the idea of a world in which we’re told each person has a one square meter parcel, but that’s picking at nits. Nothing about this is inviting, but it’s a serious, fully committed exploration of one of Beckett’s enduring riddles.