Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Probing PARTNERS at Humana Festival

The word partners carries a lot of weight if you think about it. We call romantically involved people partners, gay, straight, married or otherwise. We call people who put a business together or dance together or play cards together or write a book together or take their act on the road together partners. But what does that mean in terms of the basic qualities -- loyalty, honesty, trust, support -- we expect from a true partner?

Those are some of the things Dorothy Fortenberry investigates in her play Partners, one of this year's selections at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Fortenberry is mostly interested in domestic partners -- one married straight couple, one unmarried gay couple -- and how their choices at home echo through another partnership, a longtime friendship between the straight wife and one of the gay men.

Clare, who went to culinary school and has a real talent for things like fig foam and teeny tiny pork belly bits on a cracker, has been besties with Ezra for absolute ever. Ezra has a plan to launch a food truck based on Clare's recipes and his entrepreneurial ideas. But Clare has been missing meetings, dragging her feet on the video Ezra needs to sell their idea to potential backers, and in general, letting Ezra down.

Clare is much more eager to talk about Ezra marrying his boyfriend Brady than she is to talk about the food truck. She also seems much more invested in their relationship than her own with her husband, Paul, an IT guy for a law firm who we're told doesn't pull in much money. Clare's own job arranging food for photos is also not lucrative, meaning she and Paul are not exactly living high on the pork belly.

Over in the other household, Ezra temps here and there and Brady teaches at a school with disadvantaged children, a job that's is more rewarding than remunerative, even though his wealthy parents do help out now and again.

All of this sets up the first of Fortenberry's major focuses, which is money and how we share it with our partners. Who pays for whom? Who owes whom? Paul's modest salary keeps his life with Clare afloat, but when Clare gets a financial windfall, she isn't all that into sharing the news or the money with Paul. Ezra wants Clare and Paul to kick in some cash for the food truck or at least lend him a credit card. Brady's parents don't want to subsidize Ezra. And Ezra doesn't want to marry Brady just to get the health insurance he otherwise can't afford.

The other elephant in the room is sex. Or lack of it. Clare is fascinated by what she imagines of Ezra and Brady's hot life, while we find out late in the play that her romantic life with her husband leaves a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, back in Brady-and-Ezra-ville, when marriage is put on the table, issues of monogamy and fidelity serve as a major obstacles toward wedded bliss.

And then there's the bigger issue: When it comes to sex, money and how we support a partner financially and emotionally, how do we know and articulate what we really want?

There are some interesting ideas floating around in Partners and all three relationships (Clare/Paul, Ezra/Brady and Clare/Ezra) have their moments of clarity and conflict in director Lila Neugebauer's Actors Theatre of Louisville production. But I found myself wishing Clare had been written with the sparks of charm and reason the male characters get. We see and hear about her acne, the medical woes in her past, her lies of omission and some serious self-sabotage. No matter how many times Ezra tells us that Clare is too adorable to be mad at, she comes off miserable, dishonest, and a little whiny instead. I wanted Ezra and Paul to hold her accountable for her passive aggressive ways and unwillingness to step up and tell the truth. Neugebauer is working with an actress, Annie Purcell, who really is kind of adorable, but the way Fortenberry's script treats Clare undermines the actress's personal charm.

In contrast, the Ezra we see is a lot of fun, if sometimes maddeningly unable to read people, and Kasey Mahaffy navigates the tricky bits nicely, especially as the conflict in his relationships escalates. The two partners -- Clare's husband Paul and Ezra's boyfriend Brady -- come off quite well throughout, with a strong performance from David Ross that makes Paul seem forthright and complicated in all the rights ways and good work from LeRoy McClain that gives some heft to Brady's life and opinions.

In the end, Partners looked beautiful, with a sleek set from Daniel Zimmerman that framed the action on the ground and in the air, but seemed a bit unformed or overstuffed as it played out. Why did these two marry each other? Why did these two move in and hook their lives together? And why in the world did these two stay friends so long?

Those are not questions Partners deals with. They're just the ones that nagged at me.


  1. Paul in "Partners" is "forthright"? Not quite: He's somewhat sexist ("Is it possible to demean a pre-school teacher?") and somewhat presumptuous (he treats the money as theirs, and talks to the financial advisor, as a matter of right). And he lies to Brady about the shoes.

  2. The pre-school teacher line exposes another issue I had with the play -- throwaway one-liners that were there to get a laugh but didn't necessarily fit the characters. That line didn't fit the rest of what I took in about Paul, but it did get a laugh. That happened throughout with all four characters, I thought.

    Although I suppose it might be considered presumptuous for Paul to treat the windfall money as theirs, Clare had been treating the money Paul earned at his job as theirs, not his, for years. She said as much when she talked about not knowing where she would live if they split up because she had been depending on his income. They had a marriage based on "what's Paul's is Clare's" when it came to finances, but you are suggesting that if Paul thinks "what's Clare's is Paul's," then he is overreaching. But she wasn't overreaching all those years?

    Honestly, I wish Clare had been written to be less of a selfish child. She only communicated through food. Which would actually be sort of interesting if the play had been built around that.

  3. I forgot to say anything about the shoes. Yes, Paul did lie about the shoes. Don't you think that was because Brady and Ezra were trying to squeeze money out of Paul and Clare for the radish thing? Seriously, Ezra did not come off well trying to steal Paul's credit card to commit fraud with it. That was another place where the play went astray for me. Paul was justifiably angry that Ezra tried to steal his credit card with the specific intent to commit fraud. Would he have gone through with it? Who knows? But he said that's what he was going to do and he refused to give it back. In that instance, Paul was "forthright" to me because he wouldn't participate in the fraud or the idiotic plan. (And by forthright, I am suggesting not simply honesty, but the willingness to speak one's mind and to be direct. Paul was much more forthright than Clare in that respect. Certainly none of the characters was completely candid or open -- drama generally depends on what people don't say -- but Paul did try to be talk about the relationship in ways that Clare seemed unable to manage. The shoes are small beans for me compared to her emotional dishonesty, secrets and passivity.)

    I should also tell you that I was sitting in the worst seat in the house. Anybody on the couch facing forward looked like a back of a head to me. Brady and Ezra on the couch were therefore backs of heads to me 95% of the time. Brady and Ezra in their bathroom were almost always backs of heads, as well. Another 95%. So if I have less sympathy for them than I do for Paul, it may be because I could see his face and the actor did a good job of making him seem like a nice guy trying to deal with three not-very-nice people who were giving nothing to him but expecting a lot. Well, I guess he got a pair of shoes and some pork belly on a cracker.

    Each audience member gets a different view, obviously, based not only on where s/he sits but what world view and experiences s/he brings into the theatre. My world view says that Paul came off mostly hard-working, likable and unappreciated, and he deserved better than the wife he had or the friends whose company she obviously preferred to his. It's a common thing for one half of a couple to not be all that appreciative of the other's friends and maybe even for a spouse to choose his or her BFF over the other spouse. It may be common, but it doesn't make me think that person is a good partner. Clare put Ezra and Brady before her husband. Ezra put Brady first. Brady put Ezra first (except for the nameless people he wanted to cheat with). And Paul... Since you, Nitpicker, didn't like him, I am guessing you would say he put himself first. Maybe.

    That was one of the difficult things about PARTNERS -- certainly issues of money and sex and juggling outside friends within a partnership are interesting. It's just that the way those issues were delved into seemed superficial and cursory as the play unspooled. How had Clare and Paul been married that long and not dealt with their differing views of marital finances or sex or children or what it means to be in a relationship? How had Ezra and Clare been BFFs for that long and not dealt with their differing views of career or money or means to be part of a relationship?

    Oh well. Don't worry about me. I didn't like DINNER WITH FRIENDS at the Humana Festival, either, and it won a Pulitzer. Maybe Dorothy Fortenberry will win one for PARTNERS, too?