According to James Pagliasotti, the sanguine leader of the Ashland New Plays Festival, the group has spent the last 25 years "scouring the country for new plays." It's not unsurprising, then, that the word on this longtime Rogue Valley institution continues to be good. On Sunday at the matinée performance of "EdenEv" by Mike Teele (himself a well-established New York playwright with a long history on the NYC theater and comedy club scene), the audience was dotted with familiar faces — OSF actors, local theater producers, long-time patrons of the arts and some non-regional artistic explorers mixed in with the usual crowd of artsy young Ashlanders and the perennial clutch of more mature Ashlandian culture vultures to make up an interesting and enthusiastic crowd for the afternoon reading.
And a very strong reading it was, too. With five actors in fine fettle and a stage director (Connor Bryant) who set a strong and steady pace, "EdenEv" came alive, despite the fact that there was virtually no staging outside of four austere rostrums and a couple of uncomfortable looking raised chairs. No matter.
Paul Juhn, Amy Prosser, Jackie Apodaca, Rafael Untalan and Samuel L. Wick were excellent in their delivery as a group of four old friends — as well as one slightly bewildered young man — trapped together in a Manhattan apartment as they grapple with their various neuroses. Over the next two hours, a delighted audience was guided through an encyclopedic swath of compulsive behaviors that included May-December relationships, empty nest syndrome, penis size, the politics of homosexuality, early-onset heteroflexibility, the shock experienced at the onset of middle-age, and (less amusingly) ectopic pregnancy and the scourge of the AIDS epidemic.
Mr. Teele expertly dispatches a language evocative of the time in which he has chosen to set the play (New York City, circa 2004) managing to capture the tone of that strange, in-between era that came after 9/11, when liberals of a certain vintage could still remember the trauma of AIDS-denial in the Reagan era, but hadn't yet come to understand the long-term implications of decisions being made by the then-still-popular-enough-to-win-a-midterm-election President George W. Bush.
At the heart of the angst are Danny (Untalan) and Kit (Apodaca), a couple who have been married for two decades and have little inspiring to say to anyone, especially each other. Their daughter has just left home, and Kit is in the midst of a fairly predictable midlife crisis that also manages to obliterate Danny. The couple is attempting a trial separation, and we can understand why; they're a deeply boring and vanilla pair, and Teele has written them as someone who seems to have little sympathy for traditional, straight, married couples.
On the other end of the spectrum are Ed (Juhn) a middle-aged but still attractive gay man with a penchant for single living, his long-time friend, Ev (Prosser), a caustic spinster who hasn't had sex in so long, she needs "an abacus" to figure out just how long it's been, and Mort (Wick) a young gay man who's renting a room in Ev's apartment. I'm unsure of Teele's orientation, but as a writer, he definitely has a far stronger gift for writing gay characters than straight. Almost every word out of Ed and Mort's mouths are hilarious. They banter and bitch like a couple of Noel Coward characters who are pumped up on ketamine, and they're both so well written that they manage to make the rest of the cast look rather dull.
In an Act Two rebalancing, it's established that Ed enjoys an occasional dalliance with a breeder and has managed to get Ev pregnant. The pregnancy goes toxic, the humor makes way for heavier dialogue, and the audience gets a good insight into Teele's capacity for walking a highwire between comedy and drama.
He pulls it off, and on the whole "EdenEv" is a satisfying and memorable experience. If the rest of ANPF's offerings this year were half as good, it's a safe bet that they will continue as a delicious staple of Ashland's fall theater calendar. With their 2017 season already planned (for the first time ever, according to Mr. Pagliasotti) and a reliable full house, it's nice to see ANPF moving from strength to strength. We look forward to seeing what this reliably excellent company has in store for us the next time around.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.