Jim Grimsley’s purported “thriller” doesn’t — you’ll do better going for laughs while Busch’s Tale is still in town
Glover and Gordon
Photo: Trumpet Vine Theatre Co.
Willing suspension of disbelief — that fundamental of the theatre-going experience — is one thing. Complete disregard for the glaring stupidity of stage characters is something else entirely. And it’s precisely the latter that gay writer Jim Grimsley’s The Borderland, in a tepid production by Trumpet Vine Theatre Company, asks of its audience without giving anything worthwhile in return.
As the play opens, it’s a proverbial dark and stormy night in a rural suburb of Atlanta where you can’t dial 911 when there’s an emergency and the only neighbors of the wealthy Gordon (Greg Glover) and Helen (Alice Gordon) are the reclusive, dirt-poor Jake (Steve Lebens) and Eleanor (Shannon Dunne), who scrape by with five kids in a shack that pales next to the two-story brick manse where Gordon and Helen have lived for a year while trying to start a family.
Helen has recently taken an interest in the needy Eleanor, while Gordon has made it clear that he thinks the impoverished should be left to their own devices. Suddenly, Eleanor is at their door, seeking asylum from the abusive Jake, who proceeds to terrorize everyone for the remainder of the night.
Let the stupidity begin.
At one point, Jake breaks into Gordon and Helen’s utility room, cutting off power to the house. Yet despite the clear threat he poses, no one ever bothers to lock the back door to prevent him for waltzing in for the play’s climactic confrontation. And while everyone frets about Jake being able to see them inside the house, no one ever thinks to close the drapes.
Furthermore, when the unstable Eleanor gets hold of Gordon’s gun (while Jake is still outside) and Gordon has to get it safely away from her, he’s careful to make sure it’s pointed down and away from anyone in the room. Yet when he takes the gun outside to confront Jake and ask him to leave the property, we’re expected to believe that he points the gun at himself while trying to unlock the safety, shooting himself in the shoulder.
Then again, that’s the cleverest way Grimsley can manage to keep Gordon outside long enough for Jake to menace and attempt to rape Helen in the living room while Eleanor hides for an eternity in plain sight behind a curtain. Mind you, Jake immediately noticed earlier, when let into the house briefly while Gordon and Helen were still trying to deceive him about Eleanor’s whereabouts, that coffee for three had been served in the living room. But now he’s not gonna notice the bulging drape with feet sticking out in the very same space.
Director Keith Waters embraces — indeed, compounds — the ludicrous action set forth by Grimsley. The performances skim along at shallow levels of ugly caricature (Lebens’s Jake and Dunne’s Eleanor) and lackluster sedation (Glover’s Gordon and Gordon’s Helen) that are no more emotionally convincing than the action is believable. What a mess.
Actor-playwright Charles Busch — sans his actor hat in this case — has created some very interesting and very funny characters in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, the recent Broadway success now touring the country. At the center of his satirical take on contemporary Manhattan culture is Marjorie Taub (Valerie Harper), a wealthy doctor’s wife whose children have long flown the coop and who fills her days with every kind of high-brow cultural pursuit you can think of — art films, gallery lectures, literary symposia — in an effort to stave off midlife ennui.
Marjorie is inconsolably despondent when the play opens — she’s still reeling from the death of her therapist a month earlier — and her boorish husband Ira (Mike Burstyn) and crotchety mother Frieda (Sondra James) only exacerbate the situation. But Marjorie gets a bold new attitude when a childhood friend Lee (Jana Robbins) reappears out of the blue and inspires Marjorie with her far-fetched tales of a jet-setting, single socialite lifestyle that has supposedly put her on location with everyone from Andy Warhol and the Nixons to Princess Diana and Placido Domingo.
Harper brings a highly polished comedic skill to the role of Marjorie, imbuing her with an easy-to-root-for pluck as she rediscovers the joys of living and tries to get a grip on what she wants her middle-aged self to look like. James’s Frieda is a well-timed foil for Harper, and instead of settling for a mere stock rendition of overbearing Jewish mother, James pulls off an engaging characterization that ensures Frieda’s relevance throughout the performance.
Burstyn hits a nice stride in his take on Ira’s professional ego and domestic complacency, and Robbins’s Lee is exactly the kind of seductive slick-talker she needs to be to ingratiate herself with Marjorie and Ira as she does, leading to a transforming crisis that stands to redefine everything Marjorie believes in and treasures.
The relatively minor problem with the production lies with Lynne Meadow’s direction, which doesn’t adequately allow for the cast to step back from its broadest moments when audience reaction is cooler than expected. A mid-opening week Washington crowd certainly needed most of the first act to really warm up to the cast and Busch’s script, and they probably would have done so quicker if the production maintained a crisper pace in the initial absence of showstopping laughs.