All Things Entertaining and Cultural
While watching a football game on television, one character in Bruce Graham’s Any Given Monday, asks another which team a Philly fan is supposed to root for in a contest between the equally detested New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
This is one of several dilemmas these characters and others will face as they explore a gamut of subjects ranging from moral responsibility to the difference between thought and action, with a lot of talk about human relationships along the way.
The answer to the Giants-Cowboys conundrum turns out to be simple. You root for neither team. You root for injury.
Graham is a master at funny, naturalistic dialogue. His characters talk about myriad of things that refer to minor issues or occurrences that, germane to the play at hand or not, express wonder at what happens in the world and reflect, I think, the average person’s attitude. In Any Given Monday, one riff refers to a famous McDonald’s case by asking why someone would put a cup of hot coffee between her thighs in a moving car, and why, since she did it and won her lawsuit, we have to have “hot water” or “hot liquid” printed on cups and their plastic lids as if we are as dim as the woman — the rich, rich woman — who made McDonald’s pay for her burn.
Listen to the dialogue. This kind of observation is constant and helps to make Graham a popular and frequently produced playwright. As it should. Graham’s ramblings are amusing.
As presented at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company, in a production directed by Bud Martin, Any Given Monday is also amusing.
This was a surprise to me because, as much I enjoy Bruce Graham’s conversational asides, I had a major dilemma the first time I saw this play. I thought an incident that lies at the core of it, the central event of the piece, was handled too glibly, that the characters dismissed a life-changing act with an amoral shrug the audience could not accept.
I haven’t changed my mind about that crucial incident. Its careful set-up and handling, followed by its efficient and inconsequential shuffle to the sidelines, continues to rankle. The elephant remains in the room, leaving its droppings with no one taking the time or effort to remove the offal in a neat or satisfying way from the premises. In a play that mentions closure as often as Any Given Monday does, Graham denies the audience any genuine closure from a situation he foists on them as a major part of his plot.
The difference this time is the oversight didn’t gnaw at me and prevent me from enjoying what is good in Graham’s play. I see the elephant, but it doesn’t bother me as much. The reason is Bud Martin.
No matter how you direct Any Given Monday, the plot element to which I refer has to have an effect. It is the critical event of the piece, the pivotal act that sets everything else, from Graham’s observations to his larger looks at passivity and marital relationships, into motion. Martin was more slippery about presenting and skirting the big issue than Harriet Power was when Any Given Monday made its world premiere at Theatre Exile and Act II Playhouse in 2010.
Martin emphasizes the dynamics that governs the lead character, Lenny’s, family. He regards that crucial element, which you may have guessed by now I don’t want to reveal, as a device, a fulcrum to get to the bigger, more universal story moving. In Martin’s production, the big incident takes place and is resolved to the satisfaction of Lenny, his wife, his daughter, and his best friend. They’ve decided how they’re going to treat it, dispose of it, and Martin seems to take the point of view that the audience should agree with them and move past it. The act becomes like something from a Greek tragedy, unseen but reported by the witness, in this case the person who put thought into action. Martin decides on concentrate on another, perhaps more important part of Graham’s play.
His decision proves to be wise. As I’ve said…and said…and…the elephant does not go away, but he stands in the corner and lets other matters take center stage.
These matters concern Lenny’s reaction to things, the way he handles confrontation, and how his relative desire to maintain peace at almost any cost affects his life and the lives of the people closest to him. Parallels are drawn to Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s lead character in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s daughter regards him as weak and unable to protect her until he accomplishes something she realizes required bravery and even heroism. Lenny’s daughter, a philosophy major, also believes her father is too passive, too willing to back down rather than stand his ground when challenged.
All comes to a head when Lenny’s wife, Risa, leaves him unexpectedly to move in with a Main Line real estate tycoon with whom she has had an affair. Graham shows what a Milquetoast Lenny is by having Sarah, the daughter, relate how Lenny carried Risa’s suitcase to her car, lest it was too heavy (which it wasn’t), and how he never tried seriously to stop her departure.
Lenny hopes for the best, but when we meet him, he has almost faded into his sofa’s cushions while he watches for what must be the thousandth time, To Kill a Mockingbird. We hear the movie’s theme music and Gregory Peck intoning Atticus’s final lines as Martin brings up the lights.
Sarah is so worried about Lenny, she leaves college to come home and try to rally him. Lenny’s lifelong friend, Mickey, who has encountered an unusual number of suicides because his work in Philadelphia’s subways, is also concerned. Sarah brings her philosophical studies to bear on the situation. Mickey brings his Philly street smarts and a lot of the best jokes. Risa, meanwhile, is unhappy with her decision after one weekend, and we find her talking to her sister, Lillian, unseen, about her mistake the reason she was inclined to make it.
Mickey tells Lenny he is too ready to give in to Risa, that he won’t even put his feet up on a coffee table because she would object vehemently. (People put their feet up on tables? I’m Jewish, like Lenny and Risa. Mickey’s right. I can’t imagine doing such a thing. Like Lenny, I wouldn’t be able to raise my leg if it was near the table.) Sarah also berates her father, citing various thinkers along the way.
In the midst of all of this comes the catalyst, the almost incredible way Graham forces the situation towards conclusion. Excuse me, closure. Graham had chutzpah introducing that element. Martin has more chutzpah by underplaying it and making that lack of emphasis a kind of sleight of hand that deflects the audience’s immediate attention from it, allowing them to concentrate on the play he prefers to present, the one about what happens to a marriage after it becomes the habit of decades rather than a romance or bundle of surprises.
My surprise is he is successful. Yes, yes, yes, I always had the amorally treated sequence in my mind, but by concentrating on what was happening on stage, the story on which Martin led me to concentrate, I was able to enjoy Graham’s insights on the family at hand and had a satisfying experience watching Any Given Monday. Who’d a thunk it?
Just as Martin abetted Graham in getting away with a form of theatrical murder, the Delaware Theatre Company cast aided him by giving a quartet of excellent performances.
Michael Mastro acts and talks like a Philly guy whose work life has been spent underground. He’s Ed Norton with a cheesesteak. The energy Mastro brings to the play, and the story he tells, drives the production in the first half.
Kenny Morris, as Lenny, is a master of timing. He does an admirably disciplined job of moving from the betrayed comatose man marveling at Atticus Finch from his sofa to one who understands and acts on the advice Mickey and Sarah give him. Morris’s is a beautifully measured and generous performance. He comes to the fore at just the right moment, before which he chivalrously surrenders the stage to his castmates.
Leslie Hendrix — yes she from every episode of every spin-off of Law and Order — rivets with Risa’s confession of sorts to Lillian, sequences that come off as bravura monologues since Lillian is not onstage. One cavil. Hendrix comes across as being as Jewish as mayonnaise. Nonetheless, she establishes her character’s logic with brilliance and carries that power to her scenes with Lenny.
Lucy DeVito gives a perfect performance as Sarah whose personal philosophy is severely challenged on the Monday depicted in the play.
Which brings up one more cavil. The title. Any Given Monday refers to football, a takeoff on the title Any Given Sunday. But the incidents that occur in Graham’s play are not general enough to happen on any Monday. Yes, perhaps a wife leaving her husband and admitting her mistake are. That doesn’t account for the elephant. I doubt he would be present on any other Monday. Like I said, a cavil.
Any Given Monday runs through Sunday, Sept. 22 at the Delaware Theatre Company at 200 Water Street in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 302-594-1100 or visiting www.delawaretheatre.org.
P.S. As I was finishing this review, I happened to hear what was on television. It turned out to be a Giants-Cowboys game. Irony! Goi figure. Life imitating art. At least I know how to root. Come on, guys, INJURY!!!