Katula and Ryan Schabach (photo by Mark Frohna)
It’s an odd title, Things Being What They Are, which opened this weekend at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. But it makes sense if you think about it. There’s a touch of pragmatic existentialism about Wendy MacLeod’s 2003 play, rendered in a folksy patter. If the line is spoken in the play, I don’t recall it. But it’s certainly reflects the mood of MacLeod’s characters, Jack and Billm as they make their final exit, capping off the eventful week of their lives that we’ve just been witness to.
These “things” that “are” have to do, at first, with the basic stuff of being an American man—wives and ex-wives, kids, bosses, lawn mowers, beer. Bill (Ryan Schabach) has just moved in next door to Jack (Dan Katula), who shows up to say howdy, compare twin condos, and mooch a brewski or two. But it’s a long “howdy” that speaks to something deeper and sadder than mere neighborliness, and Katula is terrific at showing the quiet desperation that peeks out from behind the veneer of “good buddy” affability. He is six-months divorced, after all, and his insistent friendliness helps Bill open up in spite of his stricter sense of propriety.
MCT is marketing this production as a “bromance” comedy, but I’d say it’s more an anti-“bromance” than anything. As a woman writing about the bonding rituals of two men, MacLeod is attuned to the rites of burgeoning male friendships, but also wants us to see beyond the tropes and possibilities of the latest Seth Rogan comedy. Jack and Bill drink Budweiser from bottles, complain about their jobs, and trade a few funny stories. On the surface, they are a 21st-century Oscar and Felix—one setting his drink on the coffee table, the other demurely moving it onto a coaster. But MacLeod pushes them into a deeper relationship, and they respond with uneasiness, and also with insight and—in their own way—tenderness.
For the uneasiness, pay close attention to the performance of Schabach. As a man who has built his life around his marriage and wife, he recoils from the easy-going friendliness of a stranger like Jack, whose warm bath of camaraderie seems to come from another planet. Outside of his relationship to the unseen Adele, he is alone. And the prospect of losing her looms like a kind of existential emptiness he can’t fathom filling.
Which is why Jack is the ideal bull in his china shop. His baseline loneliness drives him to push the envelope of Bill’s sense of propriety. But he’s exactly the potential friend that Bill needs, the kind who lives from the gut. Director Michael Cotey gets inside the dynamic with his fine staging, which goes far beyond Bill’s Felix Unger obsession for order. Steve Barnes’ set seems vast for a two-person play, particularly in Act One, when there’s no furniture in sight, but it allows Cotey to map the characters’ evolving friendship. Katula makes the space his own from the moment he enters. When he has something important to say, he gets close—right in Bill’s face—and Schabach reacts like a cornered animal.
But it doesn’t last. You might call Things Being What They Are a two-hour seduction of friendship. It zigs and zags through its everyday emotional terrain; it ends in catharsis and epiphany. And it ends, finally, as it should for guys like Bill and Jack, with a night of pizza and beer.