By Juan A. Ramirez
We’ve all seen this setup before in countless films, TV episodes and magazine-bound short stories: two strangers at the end of their line meet and, despite their differences, rediscover the meaning of life through a chance encounter. It’s not necessarily a bad starting place for drama, but it’s not particularly engrossing unless charged and embellished with reasons for one to care. “A Guide for the Homesick,” which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Calderwood Pavilion last Wednesday, Oct. 18, adds little potency or charm to this well-worn setup, resulting in a rather disjointed affair.
Written by Huntington Playwriting Fellow Ken Urban, the play clocks in at less than 90 minutes and feels as if even that is an overextension. Not that there’s not much going on in the story (there is), but its tensions and backstories are handled in a haphazard manner that leaves one wishing it could stick to just one narrative layer. The problem here is that the foundational narrative layer happens to be its weakest.
“Homesick” opens on two Americans bursting into a hotel room in Amsterdam, six-packs in hand. If you hadn’t seen the production’s vaguely erotic poster, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re fraternity brothers; drinking and laughing like old friends, they exude nothing in the way of newly-formed connection, sexual or otherwise. After a rather clunky attempt at seduction, Teddy (McKinley Belcher III) and Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine) start unraveling their recent traumas with the same subtlety and reticence as an ad for anti-depressants.
Jeremy, brimming with anxious desperation, has just finished a tumultuous year of mixing business and pleasure at a health clinic in Uganda. Teddy, meanwhile, has been chugging beers in Amsterdam after the abrupt departure of his newly-engaged co-worker, on whom he might have harbored a secret crush.
Through flashback-aided dual casting we get glimpses into their pasts; Belcher doubles as Nicholas, one of Jeremy’s patients, and Levine ramps up the anxiety as Ed, Teddy’s runaway friend. During these exchanges, the one-act drama manages to find some honesty and vitality in an otherwise stale one-night stand story.
Belcher’s proudly flamboyant Ugandan and Levine’s depressive escapee fill up the stage in the way they must overwhelm the minds of their present-day counterparts. When these tragically brief flashbacks – none last longer than a few minutes of exposition at a time – are onstage, the play makes a decent case for itself as an exploration of guilt and compassion. The majority of the time, however, is spent looking backwards and forwards in that dingy hotel room, wondering why we’ve chosen to stay in the present.
Colman Domingo’s direction, though mostly serviceable, takes lengthy detours into the misguided. The men’s connection – the heart of the play – never fully gels after the overly fraternal opening, leaving the actors drowning in mixed messages and ambitions. Only during the flashbacks, signaled through rapid turnarounds and lighting cues, does Domingo seem in control of the play, leaving the rest of the production in a deeper limbo than the one inhabited by its characters.
The overall misdirection leaves the two leads with the unenviable task of existing in times and places that never fully come into their own. Belcher and Levine do their best, even when reciting lines that don’t seem to have ever gotten past a rough, essentialist first draft. No matter how much manpower these two can muster up, however, the play and production leave one homesick for other works which have dealt with this facile setup in endlessly better ways.