New! Actors argue the state of the stage in “Back and Forth”
Don’t discuss religion and politics at the dinner table. If actors sitting around the table, and a third topic: theater.
Patrick Schmitz makes the point in Back and Forth, his new play that opened Friday at the Alchemist Theatre. His characters offer up every conceivable opinion of theater and do battle over them. The battle can be painful to watch.
To gather the material, Schmitz interviewed roughly 75 theater participants in the Milwaukee area, including famous names like John McGivern and Mark Metcalf, and asked them a series of questions about how they felt about the state of theater. He wove those responses into Back and Forth.
Schmitz uses the Alchemist lobby as the stage for Murder in March, the actors’ play-within-a-play. (Use of the Alchemist bar/lobby is becoming routine there, by the way.) The murder mystery, hilariously overacted, ends up not being especially important to the plot, but it’s cute enough to justify its existence.
The play moves into the theater proper, which stands in for backstage at a theater in a small Wisconsin town. Initially, the narrative focuses on Brian (Josh Decker), a young actor trying to decide whether or not to fly to L.A. for a Hollywood audition, but the play eventually collapses into a long, complex argument over the purpose and meaning of live theater.
The other actors fuel the fire. The thorn in everyone’s side is Lance Ferguson (Michael Black), a semi-famous commercial actor who has returned to his hometown as a favor to the theater’s owners. His arrogance and disdain for theater enrages Paul (Parker Cristan), a stage actor to the core, who holds more bitterness about having remained in this small town than he’d like to admit.
Debra (Amie Lynn Losi) also contributes to Paul’s bitterness; once his closest friend, the two have drifted apart since her marriage, despite/due to their mutual love for each other. Debra takes out her regrets on Linda (Beth Lewinski), a brash comedian in her first play. Linda’s outgoing, independent ways stoke Debra’s jealousy.
Such a melting pot of resentments and clashing personalities seems like it would make for good theater, and it does — most of the time. Brilliant, intuitive moments crop up throughout, such as Brian’s tormented phone calls to his upset girlfriend and Debra finally confronting the antagonistic Paul about their relationship.
Back and Forth raises good questions: Is theater dying? Is film acting as “real” as stage acting? Can women be funny? What does it mean to be a good actor?
But simply posing those questions is one thing, and telling a good story through them is another. Back and Forth wavers between the two. Sometimes, the play is wrestling match of opinions; but sometimes, it becomes a lecture about a wrestling match of opinions.
Back and Forth runs through Mar. 26 at the Alchemist Theatre, 2569 Kinnickinnic Ave. Tickets are $15 at the door and at the Alchemist website.