'Backyard': Theater Review

Jeff Galfer Photography
Not even strong performances can save this confused look at sordid family bonds on the Mexican border.

A whole family in the San Diego suburbs works out its conflicts through backyard wrestling in Mickey Birnbaum's new play at the Echo Theater Company.

The first rule of fight club—"You do not talk about fight club,"—has been broken.

Inspired by the testosterone-driven physical theatrics of professional wrestling, the subculture has sprung up in backyards across the country—teenage boys thrashing the daylights out of each other for the amusement of friends and online followers. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about what this says about the violent nature of our culture or it could just be that wrestling, with its outlandish characters and staged contests, is a form of theater that offers catharsis to these kids, even if it comes with a cracked skull.

PHOTOS Inside THR's Tonys Actress Roundtable with Idina Menzel, Jessie Mueller, Sutton Foster

In the case of Mickey Birnbaum’s new play, Backyard, a whole family works out its conflicts through backyard wrestling where emotions are expressed in staged fights between combatants with names like Destroyer, King of Tears and White Knight. It’s a dramatic concept that sounds compelling on paper ... just not the paper that Birnbaum’s play is printed on.

Set in a suburb of San Diego near the Mexican border, the production features Chuck (Ian Bamberg) blocking out a fight with his friend Ray, (Adan Rocha), and in every scenario Chuck wins, a foregone conclusion arises that Ray should be used to by now, but isn’t. When he offers an alternative ending, Chuck bristles, "Ray, you have a swarthy look." And when Ray denies his Latin roots, it appears Backyard might be a story about race and immigration played out in cage match. And the scene that follows, between Ray and his Mexican father (Richard Azurdia) at the border fence, only seems to confirm it.

But that’s not what Backyard is about. Instead it sets its sights on family dynamics as Chuck’s estranged father, Ted, shows up out of the blue. If there is a reason to come see this play, it is Hugo Armstrong whose embodiment of a down-on-his-luck deadbeat dad ranges from borderline crazy to tender, with just enough bravado to mask his withering self-doubt.

Armstrong loses a tooth in a play that puts enormous physical demands on its cast, as fighting is the main form of expression. And when the actors aren’t fighting, they’re talking about fighting, scripting their next deadly encounter. The other reason to see Backyard would be young Esmer Kazvinova as Lilith, a self-lacerating teen who bites off Ray’s ear. It’s a limited role with archetypal dimensions that Kazvinova brings added depth to. As Chuck’s mother, Carrie, Jacqueline Wright shows grit, humor and humanity as she struggles to protect her son from a drug-addled father with a loose grip on reality.

PHOTOS Inside THR's Tonys Actor Roundtable with Neil Patrick Harris, Chris O'Dowd, Jefferson Mays

With all the tumbling and maiming, the cast commits to Birnbaum’s play with hearts and bones. But director Larry Biederman doesn’t seem to know what to do with his actors when they’re not fighting. Dialogue scenes are statically staged with actors standing or sitting, and little secondary action denoting inner life. When Biederman’s uninspired leadership meets with Birnbaum’s thin plotting, the audience is in for a long noisy evening.

It’s difficult to determine what Birnbaum is getting at with this wrestling match as a family drama; it’s a unique idea but doesn’t come off as an absurdist drama with a deeper point, nor does it play as realism. Not that it needs a label but it’s neither fish nor fowl in the least becoming way. If you’re in the mood for a fight, then this theater’s no place for you. And if you’re in the mood for compelling family drama, unfortunately, you won’t find it here.

Venue: The Echo Theater Company, Atwater Village (runs through July 13)
Cast: Hugo Armstrong, Richard Azurdia, Ian Bamberg, Esmer Kazvinova, Adan Rocha, Jacqueline Wright
Director: Larry Biederman
Playwright: Mickey Birnbaum 
Set designer: Stephen Gifford
Lighting designer: Matt Richter and Christina Robinson
Sound designer: Mike Hooker
Costume designer: Kathryn Poppen
Presented by Rebecca Eisenberg, Chris Fields

comments powered by Disqus