Whoever said high school reunions are a good time was sorely mistaken. The food is lousy, the music is kitschy, hairlines are higher, waists are larger, and ancient resentments are suddenly relevant again. When you think about it, these milestones are hardly cause for celebration. Such is the case with The Muscles in Our Toes, Stephen Belber’s new play at Labyrinth Theater Company, which nobly tries to rally the troops for a boisterous evening of intoxicated laughter and tears but falls just short of a party. For better or worse, the rollicking night of absurdity quickly becomes a muddled examination of racism, sexuality, and male homosocial relationships.
Appropriately, The Muscles in Our Toes checks in on four friends missing the party at their 25th reunion. In lieu of dancing, Les, Reg, Dante, and Phil have retreated to the chorus room to devise a plan to free Jim, their former classmate currently being held hostage by a group of Chadian terrorists. As their absurd plot to bomb an FBI filing cabinet takes shape, the motley crew realizes how much (and how little) a quarter century has changed them. Exposing old rivalries and revealing new secrets, Belber offers an intriguing, if somewhat unfocused, examination of the myriad pressures plaguing this group of passionate, misguided forty-somethings.
In its attempt to provide a comprehensive assessment of the middle-aged American man, the play glosses over numerous subjects without giving any one the treatment it deserves. Phil, the obligatory homosexual character, appears as a hypersexual figure convinced that nearly everyone around him – including an alleged Chadian terrorist being detained in San Francisco – is also gay. Naturally, Afghan-American Reg and Jewish convert Dante butt heads on everything from religious doctrine to eleventh grade grudges. Relying largely on stereotypes and generalizations, Belber fails to appropriately address these hot button issues. Instead, bigotry, profanity, and violence take center stage as the play’s driving forces.
Despite the script’s flaws, the 90-minute production is often engaging thanks to the steady hand of director Anne Kauffman. Her clean, no frills staging masks Belber’s meandering dialogue and static plot development. Similarly, Lee Savage’s strikingly realistic set, complete with choir posters, an upright piano, and an accurate wall clock (in case you get bored), serves as an effective contrast to the absurd events that ensue.
Jeanine Serralles steals the show as Carrie, the play’s sole female character, with her mere fifteen minutes of stage time. A former high school floozy now coping with the loss of her child and a failed marriage, Carrie rips into the chorus room with the force of a hurricane, cuts through the testosterone-fueled absurdity, and leaves just as quickly as she came. Joining her onstage are standouts Mather Zickel as the charismatic and fervent Dante and the awkwardly endearing Amir Arison as Reg.
The play culminates in a quasi-rousing speech about the importance of male camaraderie as the key to affecting change. Proclaiming their goal to “insert a fist in the rectum of the system” (one of Belber’s many vaguely homophobic metaphors), the gentlemen attempt to band together to make their “25R” an important one. However, their personalities and worldviews prove too clashing to cohere.
Unfortunately, this reunion leaves its hopeful attendants a tad underwhelmed. Few conclusions are made, little is learned, and nothing is accomplished; perhaps this is the case for all high school reunions. Oh, well. At least everyone is old enough to drink now.
The Muscles in Our Toes (through July 19, 2014)
Labyrinth Theater Company
Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street, between Washington and West Streets, the West Village, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-513-1080 or visit http://www.labtheater.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission