In the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of inalienable rights, Thomas Jefferson famously subbed “the pursuit of happiness” for property rights. This elegant tweak of Lockean phraseology notwithstanding, the quest for material success has always been a driving force in the American dream. At the same time, Western literature offers its share of iconic stories illustrating the spiritual emptiness of a life spent acquiring possessions and social status. The holidays provide a ripe setting for memorable characters such as Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge and Dr. Seuss’ Grinch to experience this epiphany.
Can a relatively green local playwright find new ways to grapple with this Big Theme already so well developed by literary heavyweights? Daron Byerly gets points for trying with More, a one-act with greater heart than heft, currently at the Waterfront Theatre. Despite uneven aspects to the script, More offers some solid laughs and wry insights. Effectively supported by clever production elements, the talented cast renders the material with gusto.
More essentially functions as a character study of Walt Balaban, a middle-aged game-show host desperately unhappy in spite of his success. “Galaxy Gamble” is the 15-year bedrock of the network’s morning lineup, but Walt feels that the bosses are favoring the newer shows and younger hosts. His irritation grows and his complaints increase as he broods on the negatives in his life. His audience is aging. The show’s contestants are getting dumber. The inexperienced crew makes minor technical mistakes.
As Walt’s frustrations fester, little things cause him to erupt in anger. When neither cantaloupes nor nectarines are available for his lunch, he complains on the phone to his brother: “The fruit plate is a serious problem!” Nothing mollifies Walt: constant adoration from autograph-seeking fans; soothing reassurances from a patient network executive; even the unflagging support of his loving wife, Susan. She pleads with him to “settle with being just a small superstar.” Thinking “small” enrages Walt. He wants, well, more.
A Thanksgiving Day meltdown at the studio causes Walt to skip the family holiday feast — and get a nocturnal visit from a pint-sized, none-too-friendly fairy. She beats the living crap out of him, while explaining calmly that he’s been “spending too much time” focusing two inches beyond his two eyes. She outlines a six-step improvement process for Walt to learn gratitude. He’s a tough customer. It takes a second visit, which features a more creative (and less violent) lesson from the fairy, to give Walt the perspective he needs.
More is only the third play Byerly has penned. The Seventh Generation marketing exec describes playwriting as an extracurricular passion, not a professional pursuit. There is a lot to like about the script, especially its concise flashes of wit and sympathetically crafted supporting characters.
Unfortunately, we don’t learn enough about these other characters, only that they admire and support Walt. Their affection for him is hard to fathom, because we don’t see anything to like about Walt, who seems petty and peevish right from the outset. Something is missing. We need a way of connecting to the protagonist, or at least understanding his insecurity.
The dramatic structure also feels out of balance. Once Walt has realized that he needs to change, the plot’s dénouement goes on too long. We don’t have to see him righting his wrongs with everybody. Walt and his makeup artist, Mike, have a charming scene resolving their relationship. The play’s emotional impact would be heightened if the author focused on this resolution, and perhaps on one or two more, such as Walt’s awkward — and hilarious — telephone apology to his unseen brother.
The spare production design enhances More’s allegorical feel. Three freestanding vertical panels flip from black to brightly painted “slices” of scene backdrops: office, bedroom and dressing room. Characters frequently step through them for entrances, turning them back to black when the scene ends. Heavy use of spotlighting adds to the surreal atmosphere.
Prerecorded game-show segments run on an overhead screen, and get some of the evening’s biggest laughs. The ’70s pop tunes heard during longer scene breaks tip the audience off to the play’s time setting. Susan’s sweater dresses are a subtler clue, along with the lime and orange accessories on secondary characters’ costumes. (Walt’s hair and costume, by contrast, do not feel from the period.) Props are few, but one “back to the future” element is delightful. Walt marvels as the fairy gets info from a glowing contraption she calls an “answering machine.” It’s a shiny silver MacBook.
Despite the script’s shortcomings, Adam Cunningham perfectly captures the character Byerly has created, a short-tempered, short-sighted man determined to pickle himself in a brine of disappointment. Widened eyes, shaking jowls and a pained vocal tone reflect Walt’s exasperation. Cunningham shows that Walt is shocked — shocked! — that life is treating him so unfairly. The intimidation is so believable that it takes time for other characters to adjust to the softer, reformed Walt.
Byerly himself is a quiet revelation as Mike, the makeup artist. His physical movements are a little wooden, but his face is expressive. The eager newbie Mike struggles to please the mercurial veteran. As Mike reacts to Walt’s temperamental behavior, Byerly shows conflicting emotions flickering across his face: fear, hope and desire to connect and trust. His gentle energy plays well against Cunningham’s intensity.
Network boss Donna does her best to pacify Walt, and Lili Gamache portrays the exec with zest. While her honeyed words and animated eyes charm Walt’s worries away, her busy body language conveys that she has other priorities.
Fifth-grader Marley Loveman-Brown has a delightful stage presence as the aggressive fairy. Her pixieish size is no impediment to her whipping Walt enthusiastically (the weapon is actually a pool noodle) and intimidating him with her poised demeanor. Her sly eyes judge his faults harshly, and her ominous pronouncements turn him into a ball of emotional goo. The major problem with her performance is that she is hard to hear. The adults in the cast compensate well for the Waterfront’s difficult acoustics, but it is often a strain to make out Loveman-Brown’s voice.
Courtney Loveman — Marley’s mom — plays Walt’s wife, Susan, with a calm elegance. She demonstrates how difficult it can be to love somebody who is unhappy. Susan applies patience and humor with diligence, but flashes of anger or sarcasm appear when frustration overwhelms her.
Loveman beautifully renders the play’s longest monologue: Susan’s explanation to her family for Walt’s no-show at Thanksgiving dinner. She ends up giving the toast, a refreshing antidote to her husband’s unhealthy pursuit of “more”: “To the part of human nature that is always looking to climb the next highest mountain. Let that part be grounded, firmly grounded in the blessings that ultimately enable us to get to the next higher place in one piece.”
Cheers to that. And to playwright Byerly for venturing into the often cliché-ridden territory of heart-warming holiday entertainment and coming out relatively unscathed.