A model of the set with the recent addition of a dividing wall.
The Look and Sound
Saturday’s production meeting was an exciting time back at the West End Pub and Grill for two of my favorite things … the steak sandwich (rare) with coleslaw and talking about the show with the rest of the production team. Conceptually speaking, there is nothing too crazy about my vision … I’m not planning on setting it on the moon or anything. It isn’t a script so much bound in time and place as it is bound within a series of unsatisfying relationships. The original play was set in the 1980s, but with the exception of one reference to a rotary phone, there is nothing dated about the script.
Steak sandwich. A thing of beauty really.
Talking with the designers, I articulated the need for the production to feel fast-paced and showcase characters obsessed with the image of happiness, rather than having genuine happiness. It’s set now. (One of the jokes at the meeting was for the “better hair” 2012 had to offer.) The visual and aural tone of the show is also decidedly secular, these are not people concerned with attending Mass or the birth of Jesus, but with the endless series of dinners, teas, and gift distribution. The musical component, therefore, goes from the tolerable pop of the 1950s to the tinniest, most manufactured tones the 90s and onward have to offer … I hear Justin Bieber has a Christmas song.
The meeting went smoothly enough. The biggest design challenge from my perspective is the props for this show. Quite frankly, it’s a props nightmare: food, special effects toys, a working puppet theatre, guns, and a thousand of other bits and pieces that the jokes and blocking are dependent upon. Big sigh. It will be a challenge, but just like Neville … I like a challenge.
Time moves quickly around here, but that time has been productive. Friday’s read-through brought new ideas about the characters and their relationships. I felt a little odd walking into rehearsal, the cast having met without me on a couple of occasions earlier in the week. It’s always interesting to hear early character interpretations where the performers act on impulse rather than a deeply developed study. Neville’s complete indifference to everyone (and nearly everything) rang out especially true. I also noticed the distinct personality contrast between siblings Neville and Phyllis. While Neville floats easily above any disaster that erupts in his home, Phyllis is an emotional tornado whirling around and infusing chaos wherever she lands like the Tasmanian Devil from the Loony Toons.
The read-through also helped me organize more clearly the complicated network of competitions that exist between this group of people. Each “rivalry,” however, is completely one-sided as the opponent is fighting a battle with someone else. Five of the nine characters engage in constant one-sided rivalries. The other four are oblivious to the rivalries and are the clear “winners” - Neville who is too narcissistic to notice or care much for the needs of others, Phyllis who has the attention span of a small child or over-excited terrier, Harvey who has long since given up on caring what others think, and Clive, the outsider to the family, whose presence as a new element into the group dynamic allows tensions to ignite in new ways for the Bunkers.
A Web of Rivalries
Rachel versus Belinda: In this classic sibling rivalry we have an older, awkward sister in a constant rivalry with her younger more alluring sister. Belinda has everything that is supposed to make a woman happy - she’s married, she has children, and she and her husband live a comfortable middle-class suburban life together. At one point, in her terribly painful explanation to Clive about her sudden (and unwanted) sexual advances, Rachel refers to “the Belindas of the world” effortlessly turning a man’s attention toward her. This seems to indicate that this “love triangle” isn’t a new experience for Rachel and she has, in fact, “lost” male attention in the past to her more charming sister. Belinda, however, does nothing to attract Clive. It occurs easily from the moment they meet in front of the Christmas tree in the first scene leaving Rachel’s efforts to attract him all the more futile and comically pathetic.
Belinda versus Eddie: Suburban wifery is not suiting Belinda, as becomes apparent through the play. While she makes an effort to trim the tree and create a holiday fantasy for the household, she is in a constant (and tense) battle for Neville’s attention with Eddie. Eddie does not work for Neville’s time just as Belinda does not work for Clive’s advances. Clive and Eddie are practically joined at the hip as they fiddle with broken toys or sneak off to the pub for a quick pint. Both husbands shirk familial responsibilities to be with each other. Belinda loses to Eddie every time.
Pattie versus Neville: Like with Belinda, Pattie lacks any apparent devotion and attention from her spouse. While Belinda has the opportunity to act out her frustration in a tryst with a handsome stranger, pregnant Pattie is most often left alone in corners crying to herself or tending to the children. Neville so easily wins the rivalry that Pattie’s existence barely even registers on his radar.
Bernard versus Harvey: This is the least subtle battle between characters in the play because while the others interact passive-aggressively, Bernard and Harvey stage an all-out war of ideals. Both are older, both are childless, and yet Bernard seems to fight for the respect of the younger generation while Harvey seems to win it easily. Bernard takes care to build and stage elaborate (and terrible) child-friendly entertainment, while Harvey sends them out unchaperoned to a gravel pit for a Texas-style shoot out. The middle generation also gives Harvey respect - bringing him drinks, paying him mind - where they completely ignore Bernard.
Eddie versus Neville: While Eddie follows Neville around like a helpless stray dog, he is in a rivalry with him for respect. Eddie is a failure and Neville is not. Neville frequently sweeps in to save Eddie from more failure and embarrassment. He holds the power without effort and Eddie is completely beholden to him.