'Against the Wall': Theater Review
Nick McDow and Katie Adler star in Charlie Mount's romantic comedy about a pair of misfits exorcising personal demons through the ritual of standup.
Back in the eighties, playwright Charlie Mount was a standup comedian laughing though his tears in New York's comedy clubs alongside freshman funnymen Chris Rock and Jon Stewart. Comedy didn't turn out to be Mount's calling, but theater did. So, he forged an enviable career in black box and non-Equity work throughout Los Angeles, but mainly at Theatre West.
His latest, Against The Wall, enjoying its world premiere through July 27, was developed as part of the company's Writers In Rep series, a program for in-house playwrights. If you plan to attend a performance, you might be advised to arrive late, as the first ten minutes give ample evidence as to why Mount failed as a comedian. But subsequent scenes reveal a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy about a pair of misfits exorcising personal demons through the ritual of standup.
When we first meet Jeff (Nick McDow), he assaults the crowd with a microphone tuned to an ear-splitting level. God knows how his pornographic humor sounded to the three gray-haired old ladies in front, but lewdness is the least of what makes his routine a failure. He's loud, hateful, and worst of all, not funny. And if you follow your instincts, you might get up and get the hell out of there, which is what one woman did, chastising him for his misogynist rant. Within moments, it became clear that the woman wasn't really an audience member but instead, Susan (Katie Adler), a feminist counterweight to Jeff's sexist blowhard. A neurotic environmentalist who overanalyzes everything, Susan is flighty and combative but ultimately a wounded and sensitive soul. And Adler's performance is the main reason to see the new play.
Working primarily with Theatre West throughout her relatively short career, Adler has appeared mostly in supporting roles in five plays with the company. In Against The Wall, she's given the chance to shine, and shine she does. She has us from the moment she heckles Jeff in his opening monologue and through their first date, where she hides behind superior intellect, parsing his jokes and needling out the sad subconscious truths underpinning his act. It is a funny but ultimately annoying defense mechanism that becomes more forgivable as she begins to let her guard down.
Back at Jeff's apartment, she sings an irresistible song about the end of the world — "He's ash and gristle, good job polar missile, arm-a-geddon over you!" — and tells a revealing story about a degrading high school talent show. In Adler's hands, this well-written though uninspired monologue becomes a poignant jeremiad on an overwhelming need for acceptance.
As Jeff, McDow has his own monologue, in which he recalls learning of a friend's death and dropping his beer in shock, except that he did it to consciously illustrate an emotion he didn't actually feel. That's a big part of Jeff's problem — his inability to feel — and it is an insurmountable obstacle that McDow must overcome if the audience is to root for this couple. Unfortunately, he doesn't and it's hard not to conclude that Susan is too good for Jeff.
The last act feels like a scramble to tie up loose ends with Susan's climactic standup routine proving to be as excruciating as those before it. The good news is it's a fixable failing. The bad news is the malevolent, misogynist, borderline sociopath that is Jeff, the play's main focus. In any other genre he might be a compelling protagonist but he is of a type unbefitting romantic comedy. An empathetic portrayal is essential to making it work, and though Nick McDow gamely assays the role, he seems thwarted not by his failings as an actor but by the character's very essence.
In Moliere's The Misanthrope, Alceste eschews the hypocrisy of social conventions and so chooses solitude over the company of friends and associates. He is made empathetic by his insightful critique of societal norms but even more so by his deep love for Celimene. In Against The Wall, Jeff is a misanthrope of a less relatable kind. Cut off from his emotions, he cannot be redeemed by merely acknowledging his failings, as the play would have it, but by doing something about them.
Venue: Theatre West, Hollywood (through July 27)
Cast: Nick McDow, Katie Adler, Lukas Bailey
Director: Charlie Mount
Writer: Charlie Mount
Set Design: Jeff G. Rack
Lighting Design: Yancey Dunham
Sound Design: Charlie Mount
Producers: Donald Moore