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Chapel Hill, NC-based Ghost & Spice Productions has selected for their latest work, now onstage at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham, a comedy that is very difficult to fit within its genre. When looking at the play in the broad sense, Willy Russell’s One for the Road is a comedy about a man facing his 40th birthday and having a whale of a midlife crisis. The milestone has caused him to examine his life quite critically, and he cannot but find fault in everything, from his marriage to the fact that, having set many goals for himself in his youth, he finds that neither he, nor any individual he has grown up with, has managed to do any of them. The comedy lies in the fact that, even though he sees very clearly what he must do, everyone around him is keeping him from doing it.
When examined more closely, however, what humor is to be found in this work is only there to mask the fact that the play barely fits the definition, if at all. Two couples, Dennis and Pauline Cain (Jeff Alguire and Tracey Coppedge) and their neighbors, Roger and Jane (Carroll Credle and Melissa Lozoff), meet for dinner to celebrate Dennis’s 40th birthday. While the four are quite adept at creating these characters, they are unable to make us laugh more than a little. And while director Michelle Byars has put this show together so as to present it to its absolute best advantage, neither she nor this quick cast can mask the very large holes that exist in this script.
It is evident that Ghost & Spice has put gallons of creative juices into bringing this play to the stage. Alguire’s main character is highly likeable, and we seem to identify with him immediately. We come to want him to succeed in what he wants to do. Coppedge creates a doll of a character in his wife, Pauline, who dotes on her husband and is adept at both parenting and homemaking. As the antithesis to this pair, Credle and Lozoff absolutely nail their characters. Credle’s Roger is a man who is big, blusterous, a leader in the community and quite under the thumb of his wife. And Lozoff’s Jane, as the domineering spouse and Leading Lady in “Phase II” of the glorious Castle Hills Estate, is an absolute witch. Long before the play is over we would like to throttle her. The set is cozy and comfortable, lighting and sound are impeccable (including wizardry in making us believe the authenticity of the Cains’ sound system), and the preshow and entr’acte music is adroitly selected and truly apt. The lack, we discover, is in the play itself. It works at cross-purposes.
This work seems to be set in England. But this is proven only by the presence of (truly fine) English accents. There is nothing else in the play that indicates locale. Music is a central theme, but it is the music of the American Baby Boomer: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, John Denver. During the same period, England had its own illustrious musical royalty, but they are never referred to. It is a very long stretch to believe that this quartet would grow up in the Sixties and completely miss their own country’s music. Finally, we are wowed by the agility of Dennis to pull off his own spectacular feat in defiling the very core of modern Suburbia: the desecration of the finely trimmed Lawn and Garden. He accomplishes this in a rash of raids that take place across Castle Hills, and he has never been caught. Yet, when the time comes for him to do what he has been trying to do for the length of the play — and by this time we are completely with him in his decision — he cannot make good on his promise to himself. Instead of doing what he sees fit, he acts on the advice of Roger to try another, completely different, tack to cure this severe crisis. His decision is so abysmal that we are horrified. It is a very strange way to end a comedy.
What appears to have happened — and plays have been written from smaller seeds — is that Russell wrote a play around a verse from a song he found particularly appealing to him. But the original verse is from a song that has no humor in it: Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (The Blue Album, 1971). And the resulting play has only a little more. As a theatrical production, Ghost & Spice’s presentation has much to recommend it. But as a comedy, One for the Road doesn’t leave us laughing; it only leaves us scratching our heads.
Ghost & Spice Productions presents One for the Road Thursday-Saturday, April 13-15 and 20-22, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 23, at 2 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors), except half price on Thursdays. 888/239-9253. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/.