James Ludwig and Tara Franklin in 'Birthday Boy' (photo by Kevin Sprague)
BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP
Birthday Boy by Chris Newbound
Directed by Wes Grantom
Through Oct 16, 2011
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass.) – Birthday Boy, Williamstown playwright Chris Newbound’s fabulous new comic drama, is enjoying a stellar world premiere production in the Unicorn Theatre at Berkshire Theatre Festival Thursdays through Sundays through October 16, 2011.
With hints of A.R. Gurney and John Guare, Newbound’s play is a sensitive, non-exploitative treatment of mid-life crisis, centered around the male lead, Matt (James Ludwig), on the eve of his fortieth birthday. But there’s plenty of crisis to go around, and Matt shares it with his wife, Arianne, played sharply by Keira Naughton, as well as with his officemate, Melora (Tara Franklin, who nearly steals the show), who has packed enough real-life drama in her tender 30 years to justify her own early-onset mid-life crisis.
Once a bit of introductory business gets out of the way, the play cleverly takes place mostly over the course of one long evening – Matt’s birthday night – and keeps the audience guessing as to will-they or won’t-they, regarding the budding relationship between Matt and Melora. Note how even their names are mellifluous together than Matt and Arianne, suggesting that if things had turned out differently, these two may have made a good couple.
James Ludwig and Keira Naughton in 'Birthday Boy' (photo by Kevin Sprague)
In the course of the evening, and with smart writing and some funny business, including the comic relief provided by the character of Julian, one of Arianne’s college students, played effectively by Nick Dillenburg, Matt, Melora, and Arianne are all given the chance to review their lives up until this signal moment where it seems like everything could get blown out of the water with something as simple as a kiss or even, more simply, as simple as a misunderstanding.
But there’ll be no spoiler here. Suffice it to say that Newbound has as much affection and respect for his characters as he does for entertaining his audience. And with the help of Wes Granton’s nimble direction, Kenneth Grady Barker’s magical stage set, pitch-perfect performances by Naughton and Franklin (Ludwig is a bit tentative and shaky, especially next to Franklin, undermining his character’s believability, which is in the script but not always in Ludwig’s choices as an actor), the production succeeds on all those accounts.