As you walk into the familiar Buntport space, the scent of popcorn envelops you. Contrived Ending, which is premiering here, is local playwright Josh Hartwell's homage to the movies and, in particular, to the old-fashioned art house. All the action takes place on a beautifully detailed and realistic facsimile of a cinema lobby designed by Biz Schaugaard — movie posters on the walls, a concession stand complete with rows of candy, a large popcorn machine.
Contrived Ending actually sounds and feels like a lot of movies — Clerks, Reality Bites, High Fidelity — that follow the activities of restless young guys trapped in dead-end jobs who play eccentric mind games to pass the time, outsiders who lack the energy to be outlaws. Here the guys are Nathan, an obsessive perfectionist, recently returned to his home town after a stint as a would-be filmmaker in Los Angeles, and his longtime friend, the manic, wild-eyed Jack. Jack is semi-permanently high, and prone to reciting chunks of speeches from his favorite films. Shane is the misfit school friend they both enjoy mocking, and Laurel is the waif-like creature whose clumping black boots only emphasize her vulnerability. There are adults, of course: manager Wendy, who sleeps with any male whose interest she can grab, and cinema owner Mr. Vincent, who's trying to ignore the fact that his theater is failing and that all the life and passion have leaked out of his marriage. The adults are semi-caricatures, but they also possess some humanity — and it's clear the youngsters won't create lives more significant than these.
The tone and milieu may be familiar, but Hartwell brings the situation to life with fizzy, funny, smart and unexpected dialogue. The characters are obsessive listers of their favorite movies, revealing and concealing their deepest selves through their choices: Mr. Vincent's list is sadly predictable, at least to his employees; Nathan's is much labored-over but forever kept secret. But from the beginning, something seems wrong with Jack, whose feelings always seem about to spew right through the top of his head. There are throwaway references to health problems and emotional fragility. And while Jack and Nathan both vie for Laurel's attention, the locus of Jack's despair ultimately lies in his feelings for Nathan.
Under the skilled, supple hand of director Jim Hunt (who's also starring in The Gin Game, reviewed above), this production has some wonderful little moments: Laurel carefully placing a kernel of popped corn on Nathan's knee; Shane reaching into the bustier he's wearing for The Rocky Horror Picture Show to retrieve a pack of gum; Wendy's trilling, slightly-out-of-sync-with-whatever's-happening laugh. But while the show fizzes along beautifully for quite a while, by the time real drama hits, I find myself disliking these self-absorbed people in their hermetic little world. Nathan is the center of the action — desired by everyone, but apparently without desire himself, too asexual to really come on to Laurel, too blind to even sense the depth of Jack's despair. He's a hard character to care about, though I'm not sure if the problem lies in the script or with Jeremy Make's performance. Make is a prepossessing actor, but in scene after scene, he absorbs energy rather than emitting it, the way black felt absorbs sound.
Jamie Ann Romero is appealing as Laurel, and Paul Page makes Mr. Vincent sympathetic, if a little too wearily low-key. Rhonda Lee Brown poises Wendy on a knife edge between absurdity and dignity, her timing unerring and her poise a pleasure. Steven J. Burge gives a brilliant comic performance as muffled little Shane. And Matt Mueller's frenzied Jack is the highlight of the evening.
I haven't been able to puzzle out the meaning of the title. Is Hartwell aiming a gibe at himself? Is he suggesting that his characters' attempts to escape their dilemmas represent contrivances, or could be contrived into a film script? I did catch apparent references to Waiting for Godot: For a while, Nathan wears the kind of clown's hat we associate with Vladimir and Estragon, and the sense of stasis and being trapped is acute throughout. "Then let's quit," Nathan says to Laurel at the end.
"Yeah," she responds, "let's quit."
Even before the lights began dimming, Beckett's stage direction marched into my head: "They do not move." And they didn't.