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The Story of My Life — Delaware Theatre Company

StoryofMyLifeInside300 The Delaware Theatre Company production of “The Story of My Life” proves how potently polished theater can triumph over facile and sentimental literature.

     Individually, and as a team, Ben Dibble and Rob McClure capture your attention and claim your affection as two friends who take diametrically opposed paths in life, Dibble’s Thomas becoming a best-selling author with an international reputation while McClure’s Alvin remains in their small unidentified but snowy hometown to run the book store in which his ailing father divined the tastes and proclivities of thousands of readers. The gifted Dibble and McClure, along with director Bud Martin, deserve a ton of praise for creating something warm and sincere out of trite, melodramatic twaddle that seems to come from a plot-by-number kit and never achieves honest depth.

      Even the character’s names, Thomas and Alvin, with Alvin being the awkward, isolated one, tell you the mildness of any emotion or humor book writer Brian Hill or composer Neil Bartram are likely to provide. Sure, give the strong, realized character the solid name of Thomas Weaver while saddling the doofus who is charming but lives in his own world with, seemingly, one friend with to share his thoughts, silly or profound, with  Alvin, a perfectly fine name but one that has come to suggest a nebbish and loser. Make his full name Alvin Kelby, and the authors have made their own, possibly intentional joke out of half of their characters. A bad joke and a bad choice.

        From their vocabulary, and from some of the things they try to impart, you can tell Hill and Bartram are not stupid and that they have good intentions. (Remember what they pave.) They are just simplistic when it comes to plotting and charting the emotional course of their characters. Everything is too clear, too easy, and while a lot happens, and much that should yield dramatic consequence, the lack of finesse and absence of irony, ambiguity, mystery, or other literary devices that add interest to a work keep “The Story of My Life” on an even, obvious, hackneyed keel so that, Dibble and McClure’s mighty efforts aside, it never takes off. Every scene, every new fact learned about the fellas, is accepted with a nod of acknowledgement. Hill and Bartram never surprise, never delight. All is prosaic and flat. Since the musical is likeable, and Dibble and McClure are entertaining, the DTC production is watchable and will while away the 90 minutes it takes to perform. The appreciation stays with Martin and his cast. Even Bartram’s most muscular anthems cannot lift “The Story of My Life” beyond a piece of amiable fluff.

      Hill and Bartram may argue “The Story of My Life” contains a lot of mystery. They can claim the entire show is a mystery of sorts. The audience, like Tom, has to wonder and be attuned to any information about how Alvin dies, something I am not giving away because you know about his death within the first 30 seconds of the musical.

      Yes, the cause of Alvin’s death looms over the production and does elicit curiosity.  Strong, concrete hints come early and often, but the audience never knows what really happened. When I say “never,” I mean even at the end of the play. The mystery hangs there without being resolved.

      Isn’t that ambiguity? No, it’s contrived confusion. Death is final. In some stories and in life, the fact of a death can be more telling, more moving, than the cause. That is certainly the case with Alvin’s death. It is a given that hovers over the musical. While we wonder how Alvin dies, the curiosity is never nagging. When Thomas talks about Alvin’s death, it’s with a matter-of-factness that defines the way Tom approaches of all his dilemmas and never in a tone that becomes dramatic.  In the end, you are satisfied not to know the details. With Alvin on stage most of the time, you never have a chance to miss him or mourn him. He even questions how Tom could arrive at the conclusion that satisfies him. Since the entire play occurs as a memory, everything is seen after Alvin’s death, so the book seller does get to comment.

      OK, let’s look at irony. Certainly, that’s clear. One has to see the basis of Tom’s success are the many adventures he had with Alvin and that Alvin continually recalls stories Tom forgot. Look at how Martin creates reasons for the actors to move on stage by showing how Alvin retrieves those stories. Tom’s career vs. Alvin’s life is totally ironic.

       Yes, again. But the relationship between the boys/men and the “inspiration” Tom receives as he composes the tales, and he is the one who composes them, is tritely written and presented. Hill and Bartram leave no room for revelation or discovery. They don’t give the audience the pleasure of discerning what is happening and how it impinges on the overall action. Their penchant is to tell us, directly and without embellishment. Everything is so transparent, it has no effect. There’s no room for the auditor to participate in solving the puzzle. The authors have just moved on the next number on their pre-fab plot chart.

       Now comes another mystery. If “The Story of My Life” is so trite, so predictable in a stultifying way, so melodramatic, and so cut-and-dried, how did it get to Broadway and how come it’s watchable and even, as a production, enjoyable?

       I don’t know how it got to Broadway. My best guess is the 3:15 from New London, near Goodspeed where it found fertile stage life, to Manhattan, where it did not last long.

       The answer to its remaining entertaining in spite of his flaws will come as no surprise. It’s Ben Dibble, Rob McClure, Bud Martin, and occasionally Neil Bartram.

        Starting with Martin, the DTC set, designed by Dirk Durosette, provides the most wit you’ll find in “The Story of My Life.” It’s all white in a way that suggests innocence, snow, and heavenliness. (Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” figures mightily as a leitmotif.) A podium the characters stand on to deliver eulogies and other speeches is a large book, a touch that is almost nostalgic in this day of iPads, Nooks, and Kindles. The back of the stage is filled with a large, bright white flat that crinkles in the right corner the way a page might in a typewriter, another nod to nostalgia. At first on bookcases and later strewn around the stage are pile of white paper that purportedly contain or provide the basis for Tom Weaver’s acclaimed novels. The look and mechanics of the show are smart and clever in a way its script and music are not.

      Martin also encourages Dibble and McClure to soar in a manner their material can’t muster. Both actors give full-blooded performances that illuminate their characters and provide any bond the audience is to have to them. While Tom and Alvin, in lesser hands, can be flat and obvious as written, Dibble and McClure endow them with life and make them endearing,

       Dibble has the tougher task in this regard. Tom, being the friend who goes to university, forges a career, has success, develops a personal life, a wife and a child, and leads a more complex, complicated life, also becomes the heavy of sorts. He cannot devote time to Alvin as singlemindedly as Alvin devotes time to him. He has a lot else to consider.

       Naturally, Hill and Bartram acquaint you with all of Tom’s conflicts, but again they do it without nuance. Tom is what you see scene-by-scene. You don’t see him grow into himself. You only hear about situations as he moves into his next life passage. Tom elicits no empathy. He too easily becomes the “bad” friend, not intentionally, but also not dramatically. Hill and Bartram try to endow him with a character flaw that explains his inability to cope with split agendas and allegiances, but again, they are too direct and heavy-handed in their approach, so while the flaw registers as a plot device, it fails to provide drama or conflict anywhere but in Tom’s mind.

      Dibble gives all the texture the script allows to Tom. He can’t help it when he’s undercut by the writers’ lack of literary finesse.

        Some of his best moments as an actor occur when McClure is center stage. Dibble is a remarkable reactor. He watches McClure, or Tom watches Alvin, with amazing intensity and interest. At times, it seems as if Dibble is a member of the audience appreciating McClure’s antics or wide-eyed, big-hearted presentation as Alvin. But, no, the reactions are Tom’s way of studying Alvin, looking through him, and responding to him at various times in their relationship. The range of looks can go from amusement to disgust, but Dibble is always perfect in his judgment of what his look should be. You read so much in his posture and expression. He stays in the moment as Tom, the friend, while conveying an authorial distance as Tom the storyteller. Dibble’s discipline is impressive. He acts when he cannot be sure anyone is even noticing him, a trait I always admire, especially among American performers who tend to lay back when they are not the focus of a scene more than their British and Canadian counterparts do.

      Dibble is no less forthright or forceful when the stage is primarily his. He conveys the maturity and dignity of Tom from the outset, from the time Tom and Alvin are children together. As the adult Tom, he is serious in a way that befits his character and gives physical verification of what he hear about Tom in Hill’s script.

       The most authentic drama in “The Story of My Life” comes from Bartram’s songs. The tunes are typical of today’s style of songwriting, jingles longer on beat or rhythm than melody, nothing too complex or attractive from a musical point of view. The lyrics mostly elaborate on feelings or attitudes. So, it’s not the content or originality of the songs that makes them work. It’s their power. They build from statements into anthems. Both Dibble and McClure bellow declarations in the last verse of numbers, and the progressive roll of the songs work to make them into palpable performance pieces. Their shallowness, in spite of some nimble rhymes, is forgotten in the intensity the singers provide.

      Dibble has the first of these rising numbers. His baritone is strong and true, his stance on stage dramatic and exciting.  As he peppers out, “Write what you know, Tom,” life comes to the stage. The audience has more to do that follow a simple script. Dibble’s performance cements the idea the songs will provide an uplift the play’s text does  not. That turns out to be true.

        Dibble plays whatever complexity Hill provides and tries to add some of his own. He succeeds in being a strong stage presence while remaining hampered by the lack of nuance in Hill’s book.

         McClure is a gentle, easygoing, charismatic Peter Pan. He shows how contentedly Alvin can live in his world that combines fantasy with genuine wonder at how science works and how writers express themselves and how stories are important as chronicles of lives.

       He is also a startlingly deft physical comedian who can balance himself in precarious ways that entertain while adding to Alvin’s boyish and carefree charm. (Dibble is also an adept physical actor and when called upon, can match McClure in gymnastic feats.)

        In McClure’s hands, Alvin becomes immediately lovable. He also becomes believable as a boy who shares his father’s talent for choosing the perfect book for a customer and as a man whose ambition is limited to enjoying the parks and environs of his hometown while admiring his friend’s success from afar.

      Alvin, of course, is the simpler character, the one who is not confronted with the challenges Tom will face and who does not have to cope with many experiences that differ from his regular habits and daily life.

      To McClure’s credit, you never pity Alvin or even care to egg him to something new like Tom does. Alvin is the picture of easy, willing acceptance of his reality.

       That doesn’t mean Alvin can’t have an occasional outburst of temper or trouble understanding why Tom doesn’t see stories or Alvin’s contribution to them as clearly as he does. McClure gives Alvin texture.. He is mostly a comic creation, but like most comedians, he is capable of great pathos when an appropriate moment arises, and McClure has the one genuinely heartbreaking scene of “The Story of My Life.” It is in a sequence in which he must convey keep disappointment and resignation following some moments of heightened excitement. McClure handles the job with the artistry of Red Skelton (from  me, a high, high compliment because I place Skelton with Charlie Chaplin, who McClure played or Broadway ,and Jackie Gleason as artists who could have you on air one moment and in despair the next).

       Like Dibble, McClure fills the theater with his songs and uses them well to raise the intensity level in the DTC auditorium. He is particularly rousing in “Independence Day” and moving in “You’re Amazing, Tom.”

       “The Story of My Life” runs through Sunday, December 22 at the Delaware Theatre Company, 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 going online to www.delawaretheatre.org.

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