Down at the Heels

If the befuddled characters in Three Men in Search of a Pair of Shoes seem unusually eager to share their endless observations about life, that's mostly because playwright and director Eric C. Lawrence has yet to compress his freewheeling comedy into a more succinct discussion about the male psyche. The two-hour-plus work, which is receiving its world premiere at the New Nomad Theatre in Boulder, belabors obvious points, stumbles over inconsequential incidents and explodes stereotypes instead of deftly deflating them.

As the play begins, an average-looking, casually dressed man strolls across the back of the stage and stops at a clothing rack. After taking a moment to peer through the garments, Thomas (Christopher Tabb) half-stumbles into the main playing area, a large open room lined on three sides with boxes and shelves. It's not entirely clear whether he's wandered into a remote department-store stockroom or, more likely, that otherworldly bivuoac where men have been rumored to vanish while waiting for their significant others to finish shopping. In any event, Tabb stops at the edge of the stage and delivers a lecture to the audience about shopping, enumerating the predictable ways in which his buying habits differ from a woman's.

In (over)due time, Thomas is joined by Jim (Robert Mason Ham), a muscle-headed dude who's initially unnerved at having been sucked into a strange room by a mere clothing rack. Within a few minutes, though, Jim and Thomas freely trade anecdotes and one-liners about shoes, "chicks" and prevailing social concerns. But after slogging through some of the reasons why men fear emotional relationships, the best the duo can come up with is that running away from intimacy amounts to "a kind of safety net." Then, after Jim mistakes Thomas's use of the term "male gaze" as a reference to "gay males," he makes an idiotic joke about an Elton John song, does a lame Harvey Fierstein imitation and tries in vain to poke fun at men who frequent French restaurants, flower shops and hair salons. A brief discussion about "boob jobs" and an out-of-left-field reference to the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks serve as even more unpleasant reminders that the pair have consumed thirty minutes of stage time to catch up with the last half of the twentieth century.

Things brighten somewhat following the entrance of Tony (Matthew Dente), an easygoing sort who seems to have more on the ball than either of his newfound friends, who try to convince Tony to join their ongoing sensitive-guy discussion. At first, Tony wisely declines that invitation by saying, "I'm gonna share something with you two freaks? I don't think so." Before long, though, he warms to the idea and offers up a few mildly amusing comments about male-female relationships.

Act One ends as the three trade insults (and a few harmless punches) and glumly retreat to their respective corners of the room. After intermission, the men relate some genuinely affecting events in their lives, with each character taking center stage to touch on a particularly significant tale concerning his upbringing. While lengthy and, like the rest of the play, somewhat predictable, that process assists the men in their quest to find remedies to their various relationship woes.

In the middle of examining his place in the cosmos, for instance, Tony realizes that he's at loose ends because all of his beliefs were chosen for him by his parents. Now he'll have to either accept that moral code or come up with one that works better. Jim, for his part, reveals that his father really only gave him one good piece of advice, and that in roundabout fashion: The hard-drinking steelworker told his son that every man must experience the agony of lost love, so that he'll never want to encounter it again -- especially when he meets the right woman and has to start putting up with her every whim and quirk. And Tom, after pointing out that "life is a bag of doughnuts that taste like shit," points out that two human beings ought to come together freely and willingly instead of clinging to each other as a way to "cure some problem."

But while those true-to-life discoveries help to mitigate Act One's pointless banalities, the play as a whole suffers from an overly realistic -- and often simplistic -- tone. Lawrence takes great pains to establish the various stereotypical attitudes he intends to demystify -- when all that's needed are a few well-placed comments and tightly constructed episodes to evoke familiar attitudes. And the actors, who do their best to be convincing, overemphasize their characters' more glaring faults to the point that one wonders why these three don't bag their feeble bonding ritual and just wander over to the men's department.

As a way of remedying that situation, Lawrence might want to make more of a character out of the magical (or is it evil?) clothing rack, which emanates sound effects whenever any of the men attempt to make a premature exit. If it were clearer that they had been drawn to their meeting place by a controlling outside force and were prevented from leaving until they had achieved some higher purpose, their out-of-the-blue attempts to find meaning in the universe might make more sense. The presence of a sinister alien being -- like maybe the recorded female voice that punctuates each scene by telling customers how much time is left in today's sale? -- could also serve as a threat to the men's safety and independence, thereby eliminating their tendency to ramble. Which might make a wholly worthwhile enterprise out of Lawrence and company's far-flung, and presently dilutive, discussion.

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Jim Lillie

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