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Theatre in Review: Hal and Bee (59E59)

Candy Buckley, Jeff Hayenga. Photo: Hunter Canning

If, as they say, old age isn't for sissies, Max Baker's play seems dedicated to the proposition that late middle age can be hell on earth. The title characters, married for decades, are slowly driving each other crazy. Hal is a writer who, four books ago, had a certain reputation, but currently all he has to show for himself is a blizzard of publishers' rejection letters. Afflicted with agoraphobia, he gets through the day by popping Xanax and taking hits from his pot-filled vape while channel surfing, playing video games, and writing new posts for his blog -- which, he proudly tells his scoffing spouse, has six hundred fifty-two subscribers. Bee is the breadwinner, toiling in a museum, a job that she has come to loathe: "I'm serving a museum sentence," she laments. "I've become part of the permanent collection."

Their marriage -- a once-passionate affair, it is strongly suggested -- has devolved into a litany of irritants, all of which come to a head when they receive a letter from the management company of their Upper West Side building, informing them that it is being redone -- presumably as a condominium -- and offering them $30,000 to vacate. Hal is furious, vowing to mount a battle to save their home, but Bee is ready to move to a cottage Upstate and cultivate her garden. Enraged, Hal takes a pair of scissors and stabs her to death.

Except he doesn't. Throughout the course of Hal and Bee, various acts of uxoricide -- plus a bonus intentional overdose -- take place in Hal's increasingly frustrated mind. These are meant to amuse, I guess, but they don't, in part because the joke, which isn't that strong to begin with, grows stale through repetition, and in part because watching the two of them snipe, deliver ultimatums, and indulge in homicidal fantasies, one can't help but feel that Hal and Bee aren't really worth one's attention. There's no vigor in their venom, no black-comedy zing to enliven their verbal warfare. And it's virtually impossible to tell what they ever saw in each other. Oddly, they are portrayed as ex-hippies: "We ended the war," Hal says. "Abolished the draft. Got rid of Nixon. We were in the revolution, Bee. We were the revolution." Quite apart from the fact that there are few subjects more picked-over than the disillusionments of the 1960s, Hal and Bee would have to be a good decade older than their stated ages (Hal is in his sixties, Bee in her late fifties) for them to have been anti-Vietnam firebrands.

The actors throw themselves into every spat and murderous act, although Sarah Norris' direction is often fidgety. Jeff Hayenga captures Hal's bafflement with the modern world, although it might help if he delivered his character's many conspiracy theories with a stronger sense of conviction. Candy Buckley's dry delivery -- she appears to have studied at the School of Eve Arden -- is always a pleasure, and the first time Bee was killed I was distraught at the idea that she might not be around for the entire evening. In some ways, the strongest performance is delivered by Lisa Jill Anderson as Moon, their daughter. A pot-dealing grad student who is pursuing a course of study that she loathes, she is a guided missile bearing a full payload of millennial resentments. (Hal is her number one weed customer.) Speaking in a nasal whine that probably alerts dogs all over the neighborhood, addressing both her parents as "dude," she is entirely oblivious to her life of privilege. "You got to fall in love, didn't you?" she says to Bee, accusingly. "Your whole generation. You were all like love and peace and long, deep, meaningful conversations. My primary relationship in life is with a piece of technology. What: I'm going to fall in love using texts and emojis?" Apparently, Anderson, who nails her character with lethal accuracy, has appeared in several of the playwright's works, suggesting that she is on his wavelength, but it also seems likely that Baker understands Moon's character, as opposed to Hal and Bee, who retain a certain manufactured quality. Ian Poake has a nice turn as a Russian exterminator with a philosophical turn of mind.

The production's design is arguably its most successful aspect. Contributing what is arguably the most detailed set ever to be seen in 59E59's tiny Theater C, Brian Dudkiewicz has come up with a convincingly lived-in interior that demonstrates how New Yorkers residing in miniscule rent-controlled apartments manage to make use of every inch. Michael O'Connor's lighting is unusually detailed, as well: Note how a subtle adjustment is made each time Hal switches television channels. Genevieve V. Beller's costumes are thoughtfully designed, especially the consistent, highly layered look she has created for Bee. Andy Evan Cohen's sound design includes a preshow list of 1960s hits such as "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," as well as television broadcasts and gunfire.

Baker eventually brings his warring marrieds to a certain moment of understanding, but, even with a relatively brief running time of ninety minutes, they have worn out their welcome. Constructed as it is out of little more than circular, repetitive arguments, Hal and Bee, the play, never makes a case for why one should care about Hal and Bee, the characters. -- David Barbour


(19 March 2018)

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