by Cory Conley · May 13, 2015
Would it surprise you to learn that there's a Charles Mee play currently showing at a loft in Gowanus, Brooklyn?
It probably shouldn't. If you're familiar with Mee's work, you'll know that they tend to thrive in environments far away from urban hustle-and-bustle and closer to the path of the G train. It's impossible to imagine a Mee play on Broadway, for instance, and his work is almost certainly better for it.
The loft in this case is actually called Gowanus Loft, marketed as “a sun-drenched, epic space for creatives to explore and express their ideas.” And this production of Mee’s Summertime, presented by Between Two Boroughs Productions and expertly directed by Jenn Haltman, takes full advantage of its site, decking it out in artificial grass and scattering paper lanterns around the playing space. There’s even a swing for actors to sit on, and, later, some objects falling from the ceiling (I won’t spoil that.)
It’s a bit hard to summarize the experience of watching Summertime, so I’ll let the playwright himself do the honors. According to Mee’s website (where you can read this, and all of his plays, for free), Summertime is “a sweet, dreamy, romantic comedy from the world of As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream and The Cherry Orchard and Moliere and Magritte.” If that sounds like an odd mixture, the play certainly lives up to it, at least in form.
The action takes place at a summer house, and begins with Tessa, who plays a sweet song on the swing, only to be approached by an intense stranger named James, who asks her to translate some Italian photo captions into English. They flirt, and have a good rapport, but soon Tessa’s lover Francois storms onto the stage, seducing her into a dance, while James looks on, outraged that his newfound connection is already distracted.
There are many character entrances yet to be made, however, and the quirks pile up. This includes the sex-crazed Natalie; the troubled Mimi, who hates love and men; Tessa’s mother Maria, who shares a liking for Francois; Tessa’s father, the sad-sack known as Frank; Frank’s gay lover, Edmund; the house’s man-hating maid, Barbara; a serial-killer pizza delivery boy named Bob; and a zany German neighbor named Gunter. Messes are made, hearts are broken and rebuilt, dances are danced, and many personal manifestos are spoken.
The cast is well-assembled and full of energy. Hubert Point-Du Jour is a standout as the vibrant and elusive Francois, while Becca Schneider brings a focused whimsy and desperation to Tessa. The set is magnificently designed by Tim McMath, and the costumes are perfectly calibrated by Kima Baffour. Haltman shows great skill at direction, forging elegant pictures with diagonal staging and nuanced scene work.
Ultimately, Summertime is not one of Mee’s most effective scripts, and it highlights some of the limitations of his rejection of the “well-made play.” The no-holds-barred, collage-like nature of his process doesn’t translate as well to the subject of love as it does to other large-scale human endeavors (like politics.) Summertime is full of many, many speeches with pronouncements like this: “Love these days: it is such a strange and difficult terrain. So often we don't know where we are or whether we're in the right place at all.”
That’s true, but it’s not exactly news. Nor is the idea that passion can exist between many different kinds of people. And in any case, Summertime spends a lot of time theorizing about love and often avoids the work of creating full-blooded people with three dimensions. A few insights on this well-worn subject would be welcome, but an entire evening of them can feel fatiguing.
To my mind, the best moment in this lovely production is one that’s not in the script at all, when the entire cast sings an acoustic rendition of “The Power of Love,” by Huey Lewis and the News. (You’ll remember it, of course, from Back to the Future.) “It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes / but it might just save your life,” sings the cast in unison, getting to the earthy heart of the matter in a way Mee doesn’t quite manage to here. For that moment, Summertime feels less like a performance and more like an evening at your hip friend’s loft in Brooklyn, with everyone basking in the warmth of a shared nostalgia, understanding each other and staying hopeful that eventually it’ll all turn out okay.