When I first heard that Theatrical Outfit’s Two Drink Minimum was the first play written by a former UPS Executive turned Theatrical Outfit board member (who had coincidently donated enough money to have the company’s theater named after his family), I was concerned that the theater that vows to present “stories that stir the soul” had given in to an angel’s vanity project. However, I should have known better than to doubt the artistic choices of Executive Artistic Director Tom Key and company. Not only does Two Drink Minimum stir the soul, the show creatively takes said soul on an emotional journey that rewards with both laughter and tears; as an example, the title refers to what is required for the regular Sunday phone calls between a son and his always opinionated mother.
In his autobiographical debut play, William Balzer tells of his tumultuous relationship with his mother Mary B., played magnificently by Susan Shalhoub Larkin. As Key says in the program, we all know a Mary B.; an indomitable figure skilled with dispensing her own brand of Polish-Catholic guilt. While my Polish-Catholic grandmother is more of the nervous-variety, there is still so much familiar about the relationship between Mary B. and her son, that you feel as if you are watching your own life unfold on stage, rather than Balzer’s.
While, at times, Mary B. is not the easiest character to sympathize with, Larkin is unquestionably the heart and soul of this production. She provides an unwavering center to a show that spans decades. Mary B. defies definition, as she seems to be a contradiction from the very beginning. One moment feisty and the next fragile, Larkin plays Mary B.’s hysterics with a conviction that forces you to forget that she is not actually Balzer’s mother. Through the decades the show spans, Mary B.’s aging process was absolutely mesmerizing. While hardly ever leaving the stage, it appeared that with a simple hunching of her back and contortion of her face, Larkin went from a meddling middle-aged mother to a brittle nonagenarian. In every possible way, Larkin’s performance is a master class.
This familial memory play takes place in a disheveled attic, which Mary B.’s son Bill, played by Suzi Award-winner William S. Murphey, methodically and carefully organizes throughout the play. As each item seemingly brings forth another memory of his mother, Murphey expertly serves as both son and narrator in this nuanced personal tale. From anger to annoyance, Murphey never loses the inherent love that a son has for his mother, no matter how neurotic she may be.
Aside from the stars, director Scott Warren’s fun and effective staging serves as a highlight for the show. Incorporating an entertainingly eclectic mix of high and low-tech devices, Warren’s creative direction keeps the story of this life-long relationship swiftly moving.
The two remaining members of the company, Matthew Myers and Wendy Melkonian, are a joy to watch. Myers plays a number of male roles, including a young Bill, and Melkonian shines as Mary B.’s long-suffering daughter-in-law, Peg.
Two Drink Minimum doesn’t pack the emotional punch that the company’s previous show My Name Is Asher Lev did. However, it serves as a wonderful companion piece reminding us that while our families are often messy, and are rarely perfect, they are ours.
Theatrical Outfit’s Two Drink Minimum, which runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, plays through November 18, 2012. Tickets are available for purchase at 1-877-725-8849 or by visiting the Theatrical Outfit’s website.
– Matt Tamanini