It bears repeating that an artist or creative producer should never apologize for work – not during, not after and most especially never before we get to experience it for ourselves. It is up to an audience to decide if a presented piece of theater, music, visual art, whatever it may be, is ready, good or worthy of its time.
Alleyway Theatre’s latest, “To the Top,” a 2011 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition finalist, opened to a packed house last Thursday. It began with a warm welcome from literary manager Joyce Stilson, who in so many words warned us that what we were about to see was still undergoing revisions.
The playwright, Ron Radice, had been called out of the country by his day job, and therefore couldn’t get Buffalo’s Radice a revised, apparently shorter, script in time. Stilson reminded us that these edits would soon make their way into this production and invited the opening night audience to return at a later date.
The shoddiness of that welcome was wrong enough for aforementioned artistic reasons, but also because it wasn’t necessary. The play is quite good. The production is rather right. The evening was enjoyable.
Neal Radice’s direction is nicely wrapped around Ron Radice’s tight two-man (maybe 2½-man) script, the concept of which is spiritual and absurdist, playful and profound. It’s straight from the Beckettesque school of existentialism, in which two men, Dougal (Tim Joyce) and Yukio (Tom Owen), spend the play climbing a mountain, the top of which we may never see and may never need to. It doesn’t matter what’s at the end of the rainbow; it’s about pontificating on the purpose of the rainbow. It’s about life.
Joyce and Owen are stellar in these roles, pitting one cookie-cutter Everyman against another – Joyce plays a terrific slob, and Owen is once again distinguished. Each needs the other to reach the peak, and yet the annoyance between this odd couple is the conflict that makes it entertaining. They are both so finely in their character’s shoes that they reach Radice’s mountaintop with seemingly little effort.
Joyce, especially, hits many nerves. There is a grossness to his Dougal, a mysteriousness that eclipses any need for details. It’s a good thing these men’s backgrounds don’t matter in this existential exercise; we wouldn’t care to be so enlightened. In fact, Joyce’s delivery of a disheveled, ill-mannered, depraved soul makes it clear that even the dirtiest of idiots deserves redemption. Dougal is just a man who needs both access to and a reason for a shower.
Owen is dependably strong and, in a wonderful way, just a little bit different than you’re used to seeing him. His Yukio is perhaps more astute than Radice’s vision called for. You would be hard-pressed to find a buttoned-up chap, ascot and all – typical of the Owen motif – climbing a mountain, even a proverbial one. But here we see him dressed down, more common than his heightened voice would suggest. In these rags, his agitation is more serious, more confounded and more entertaining.
And yet, you can understand how these two mishaps would find each other useful. What one needs, the other will attempt. What both lack, they both seek. This is the script’s winning feature, much more so than the premise or nod to Godot. Radice’s writing is tight, concise, entertaining and quite adventurous.
David C. Mitchell’s role as three visions – Father Franz, a wandering man of faith; Quedar, a paranoid Mexican man out for laughs; and Mulla, a lost circus clown (yes, yes, there’s even a sad clown) – is an incredible third wheel for Dougal and Yukio’s trek. Mitchell’s range in voice and character type is wonderfully utilized. His provocation of our wanderers’ goals is the audience’s glass to the wall. He is our weather vane.
Neal Radice’s design is worth noting, as well. His uniform set has an upward momentum to it, suggesting that there’s no logical end to this curved staircase. Lighting is layered and perfectly suggests the many shades of sunlight and twilight.
That playwright Radice’s concept has been written and rewritten many times over is not to his discredit; the best stories get retold. But by some force of whim and chance, Radice’s production meets Radice’s script in the middle, letting each other’s assets sing. As the play currently stands, it stands tall.