We call them “suits. ” You know, the businessmen with the cellular telephones attached permanently to their inner ear, briefcase in hand, rattling off policy statistics or some other economic office jargon to a lively assistant in a high-rise somewhere downtown. Oh yes, the man who has it all: a doting wife, two kids, a lovely home, weekends at the beach, perhaps a luxury car and even the family dog to come home to. What happens when all of his hard-earned commodities are suddenly seized from him, piece by piece? In Patience, Woolly Mammoth’s season closer, Canadian playwright Jason Sherman asks the tough questions, and acknowledges that “there are no easy answers. ”
It’s a timeless story: good man has everything, loses everything, wonders why. The Bible had Job; we get the unlikely executive hero, Reuben (Mitchell HÃ©bert). While carelessly living out his American Dream, Reuben embarks on an odyssey of eerie cosmic business that commences with a visit from an estranged friend and refuses to end until he unearths his own personal redemption. Instead of Job’s legendary repentance to turn to dust and ashes, Reuben responds with more questions, more pride, less humility, and less interest in human nature.
Sherman, best known for his dark humor and biting, savvy dialogue, has spun a tangled web of reality and imagined memories — Reuben and company are constantly tossed between the present and past where the conversations and questioning banter borders on the absurd. The playwright never allows us to forget that everything we observe can be perceived differently.
Reuben’s self-imposed quest is to find the one solitary moment that has caused everything in his life to turn from ideal to ruin, but his sordid journey through past and present takes a mountain of patience to endure. And once the puzzle pieces click together — sporadically, if at all — it’s too late to forgive the minutes of heavy discourse and intermittent quips. By the time Rueben “gets it, ” the points made throughout the evening have been so diluted, we are left feeling waterlogged.
Howard Shalwitz has directed Patience with an intricate understanding of the eternal human dilemmas addressed. (Shalwitz seems smitten with tales of cosmos and destiny, as this season began with Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, another eccentric trip down the existential path of lost time, predetermination, and free will.) The evening includes prime acting from HÃ©bert, Marty Lodge, Michael Willis and Naomi Jacobson, with fine ensemble work from Timmy Ray James and Kosha Engler.
While HÃ©bert’s Reuben is so miraculously ambivalent that it becomes increasingly difficult to like him (when a Rabbi offers Reuben a cigarette and warns, “They’re stale, ” Reuben deadpans, “So is my life “), and Lodge brings humor and pathos to a blissfully ignorant physics professor, it is Michael Willis in multiple roles (as the Rabbi, a neurotic recently-unemployed chain-smoker and a stout business tycoon) who stands out with refreshing, quirky character work.
Elena Zlotescu’s post-modern, multi-functional set allows the play’s incessant scene changes to come off as fairly seamless as time and space shift constantly. Sound designer Mark K. Anduss offers perfect sound complements, including some rather eclectic musical pieces.
Running over two hours in length, Patience gives a misshapen bend to a classic tale. After all of Reuben’s searching and mourning, lamenting and wondering, we are left to ponder why his wake-up call isn’t loud enough to wake up the audience. When its brief moment of deliverance finally arrives, one has to wonder who was patient enough to stay awake to hear it.