by Sergei Burbank · November 26, 2013
Playwrights on New Plays #21: Sergei Burbank looks at Distilled Theatre's production of Long Distance Drunk playing at The Secret Theatre Corey Pajka’s melodrama Long Distance Drunk is an episodic series of vignettes depicting the alternating peaks and valleys in the college/post-college relationship of Meg (Marlowe Holden) and Cameron (Paul Eddy). From the play’s opening moments, it is clear that their pairing is in reality a triangle, with the third pride of place held by a rotating cast of mind-altering substances enlisted to help each of these damaged characters cope with their demons. The chapters in their tale unfold out of strict chronological order, flipping between their college years and the present day. Initially it is Cameron, the upperclassman, who helps Meg adjust to the slippery ethos (and soporific beer suds) of college life; but while Meg’s ambition (and drug of choice) evolves, Cameron’s does not. As Meg leaves her college career behind, she must leave Cameron with it. Cameron refuses to disappear quietly into memory alone, and the question hanging over the remainder of the play is whether their relationship will land on the upswing or descent.
The production’s strongest asset is the pairing of its leads; the radiant Holden and effortlessly winning Eddy build a convincing romance before us. The distinctive element of their relationship, as outlined by Pajka’s text, is its ease; this is not a whirlwind, incandescent romance, but a comforting one. It is absolutely plausible that despite her decision to leave him, Meg continues to fall into the habit to reaching out to Cameron in her moments of tribulation as the years pass. Meg reaches for Cameron as she would reach for a fluffy comforter -- the same comforter that threatened to smother her before.
Eddy’s charm provides necessary lightness to the evening; his animation allows an audience to ease its tension with laughter. But the cast’s effort to create a plausible love worth fighting for is undermined by leaden pacing: the play runs about a third longer than it should without cutting a single word. This melancholy is aided and abetted by beautifully haunting melodies by Brittany Parker; together, these elements, while lovely in their own right, leave no doubt that everyone is doomed. Eddy and Holden are most convincing when occupying their college years -- yet even in flashback, every scene is imbued with the dread and heaviness of their dissolute present. The final scene is either a jarring twist or unjustified wrinkle -- depending on one’s personal taste -- but it nevertheless justifies the absence of any sense of hope throughout the production.
To its credit, Pajka’s text distinguishes itself by unpacking and examining the very notion of addiction in a way that many plays with similar themes do not. The second act opens with dueling testimonies at separate AA/NA meetings, a lyrical set piece that holds pride of place: it is masterfully done. Yet despite being a play whose central relationship is about addiction, the intermixing of the substances in question and our characters remains frustratingly in the wings. The ingredients are all placed in view -- a relative’s terminal illness, an unhappy childhood, a strict upbringing that makes moderation tough to learn -- and yet, we are told about rather than shown an out-of-control cocaine addiction (one panic attack does not a downward spiral make). Pajka is a reluctant cook, placing the ingredients on the counter, but unwilling to combine them.
Both performers are exceedingly brave and emotionally naked -- both to each other and the audience; Eddy gamely takes on the dual challenge of depicting believable intoxication and the intoxication of a functional alcoholic, with mixed results, while Holden convincingly ages before us from a timid near-adolescent to a woman with conflicting emotions -- and a painful sense of their consequences.
The enduring question that lingers long after the curtain call attests to this play’s promise and power: it’s sometimes hard to determine what’s more harmful -- our drugs of choice, or each other.