Curious Theatre's On an Average Day is a first-rate production

Some of the best acting you'll see anywhere. A brilliantly putrid set design. Haunting sound effects. Taut direction. On an Average Day is a first-rate production — but unfortunately, the play itself feels like an early exercise, full of sound and fury, signifying not much of anything. John Kolvenbach is obviously a talented playwright, and I suspect we'll have great things from him someday. Not this story, though, which sounds as if the sibling rivalry of Sam Shepard's True West (including the primal fight scene) had been stuck into some kind of pointless Waiting for Godot universe and written up with a nod to the elliptical mysteries lurking behind Harold Pinter's dialogue.

Robert is a sometimes blubbery, sometimes very funny mess — self-pitying, paranoid and delusional. His hair and beard are wild (in the show's promo pics, he looks Christlike), and he's living in the run-down house where he and his older brother, Jack, grew up, and facing a prison term for a pointless act of violence (though he's inexplicably out on bail). Enter business-suited Jack, who seems to have his act far more together. Robert assumes he's arrived to help, but Jack has demons of his own, and also his own proclivities toward violence. The dialogue is often very, very good and unexpectedly funny, with Robert periodically drawing us into the logic of his insane worldview and at other times seducing us with a mini-flood of fanciful description. "The guy wears his suit like it's patting him on the back," he says of the prosecutor who's trying to send him to jail. For a while, Jack's silences and enigmatic interpolations are equally riveting.

Both Michael Kingsbaker as Robert and Brian Shea as Jack are completely immersed in their roles — Kingsbaker exploding periodically with pent-up emotion, Shea contributing a tough, hard-eyed portrait and an emphatic, almost maniacal precision. The dynamic between the two actors — the silences, the rhythms, the unreadable glances they direct toward each other — is perfect. Director A. Lee Massaro has assembled first-rate talent on the technical side, too. For the set, Tina Anderson has created the nastiest kitchen imaginable. There are newspapers piled everywhere, the trash can overflows, the sink is so stained it looks almost burned, a dim light (courtesy Richard Devin) struggles to penetrate the plastic sheeting over the window. The whole place looks as if it's decaying in front of your eyes, and you really have no problem believing that the smell coming from the fridge is so ghastly that just retrieving a beer requires serious courage. The costumes, by Ann Piano, look as if they belong on these characters' bodies, and the low-key and perfectly understated sound design is by Jason Ducat.

Michael Kingsbaker (left) and Brian Shea are brothers in On an Average Day.
Michael Kingsbaker (left) and Brian Shea are brothers in On an Average Day.

Despite all this, the ending is so anti-climactic that you walk out wondering what you've just seen. The lives of these men are entirely deracinated, and most of the narrative simply doesn't add up. We don't know where the action takes place, where the brothers grew up, where their mother was after their father's disappearance, when apparently fifteen-year-old Jack became Robert's substitute father, or what their admittedly intensely neglectful father actually did that was so terrible that it pitched both his sons into madness. When Jack talks about his current marriage, you can't imagine a flesh-and-blood wife and children inhabiting it; when, finally broken, he sinks to his knees in despair, you wonder what he's going on about, because the monologue sounds like a playwright straining for a level of significance and resolution he hasn't laid the groundwork for.

I haven't always agreed with Curious Theatre Company's choice of materials, but the company's contribution to the Denver theater scene is invaluable; I don't believe artistic director Chip Walton has ever chosen a script with one finger up to the economic wind. He's devoted to new work and continually on the search for material he finds challenging and exciting. Sometimes, as with On an Average Day, it's more promising than realized. But that's the spirit that keeps theater alive. And promise like Kolvenbach's is worth serious attention.

 
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