(Costa Mesa, CA) March, 2014 – If there was a perfect, universal observation regarding high school reunions, it would be a quote by Joan Cusack in the 1997 dark comedy Grosse Pointe Blank when she shares with her hit man boss Martin (John Cusack) the one thing that jumped out the most during her own high school reunion: “It was just as if everyone had swelled.” Reunions are either joyous occasions where classmates who are comfortable within their own skins get to catch up with their lives and appreciate each other’s respective successes or they can be pathetic affairs where those who hit their peak during high school have basically gone downhill after that and only come back to these reunions in order to relive their only glory days. Very few stories ever capture those true emotional “grey areas” that high school reunions conjure. Grosse Pointe was one good example, albeit in a twisted violent way, and so was Peggy Sue Got Married. But many others have only slipped into bad caricature and bathroom humor like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and American Reunion.
To write a play utilizing the theme of a high school reunion should be a very easy task for the playwright to accomplish: it should be character driven and the three-act story arc would fit perfectly on the stage. However, the playwright must be careful not to fall into cliché, especially when it comes to dialogue. Otherwise, the story falls flat. However, with South Coast Repertory’s Reunion, audiences will witness a powerful work which shows an incredible range of emotional complexity about revisiting one’s past, thanks to a trio of talented actors, the deft direction of Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and a script whose sharp dialogue and three dimensional characters seem to jump out beyond the page and stage. Playwright Gregory S. Moss’s latest work proves that his creative voice is a wonderful addition to this Southern California regional theatre.
It’s a 25-year high school reunion at a Boston working-class suburb, and three classmates who were friends back then decide to meet again at the same dingy hotel room where they partied for the last time after their graduation. First on the scene are the ever eager Peter (Kevin Bernston) and the sullenly reluctant Max (Michael Gladis). For Peter, this reunion is the event of the century, a life reaffirming experience. During high school and now, he is the follower of the three. After he got married and had three kids, he even named his twin sons after his high school buddies. He’s in tune with Facebook, does Pilates, and is “happily” on his wife’s leash…which is more the reason why he has been dreaming of this reunion, getting drunk and stoned with his high school bros. Max, on the other hand, is uncomfortably silent and tense. Although married with a son, this former high school hellraiser is a recovering alcoholic whose wife threw him out and who is trying to make peace with his demons, as well as repairing the damages that he has caused during his younger years. But when the third musketeer arrives at the room, Mitch (Tim Cummings)—who was the junior delinquent during high school and looks as though he still is one (only with less hair, a goatee beard, and who owns a pack of dogs and still lives at his parent’s home), then all hell breaks loose where some buried feelings and hurts are unleashed and all three men leave the all-night bender forever changed.
Every aspect of Moss’s writing—from using pop 80s culture references and props, the captivating monologues, to the interplay between the characters—is one of the strongest, most disciplined that has ever appeared this year on the SCR stage when it comes to new works. There is a realistic, gritty rhythm in how the characters speak, very much like a combination between Edward Albee and David Mamet. The story arc, including the revelations, is consistant and the resolution concludes satisfactory. His craft and artistry as a playwright explodes like the punk rock music that is played during the scene changes. He knows how people talk and that realism adds to the drama even more. Campbell-Holt’s direction is extremely fluid and taut; even during some of the long pauses, the story never drags. Both Moss’s writing and Campbell-Holt’s direction is a nice creative pair and, hopefully, if another of Moss’s plays comes to SCR, Campbell-Holt is the perfect director to bring this dynamic magic to life.
The performances from all three artists elevate the text and themes of the story to new heights. Berntson’s Peter is like an anxious little puppy in the first act of the play, always willing to please his friends. But as the story progresses, he realizes how much he was taken for granted by the other two during high school and how good he has it in terms of what he has accomplished after graduation. He may be emotionally controlled by his wife, but he has less angry demons to deal with than the other two. Berntson slowly reveals that transition very well. Gladis’ Max seems to be the “independent” of the trio, trying to resist the alcohol and putting a leash on Mitch during his cruel moments with Peter. However, when Max falls off the wagon during the second act, Gladis is an unbridled nihilist: drinking, smoking weed, tying up Peter with duct tape, and getting into fistfights with Mitch. The rage of his self-loathing goes full throttle until he sobers up and realizes how lost he is. And Cummings’ Mitch hilariously steals many of the scenes by swaggering like a combination of Elvis and Johnny Cash, but waxing eloquently about machismo conquests like Hemmingway. Cummings' comic timing is incredible, but he also expertly adds much depth and especially deep angry pain to this alpha male leader, who spirals out of control and then discovers that although he is in his personal hell, it is a hell that he has created of his own choosing and he’s perfectly fine with that.
But the true star is Moss, and Reunion is an excellent addition to the Julianne Argyros Stage, whose purpose is to feature new, experimental works of up and coming artists. This stage was a perfect venue for Reunion, and hopefully, as his craft grows, his future works will transcend to the Segerstrom Stage, very much like what happened with playwright Samuel Hunter when his incredible The Whale from last season at the Argyros has now resulted in him evolving to the Main Stage with the upcoming Rest.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Reunion opened March 9-30, 2014
South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson