January 24, 1995 in Features

‘Men In Suits’ Excels In Its Simplicity

By The Spokesman-Review
 

“Men in Suits” Sunday, Jan. 22, Interplayers Ensemble

Great writing, great acting, an intimate, informal atmosphere - it all adds up to the nagging feeling that “Men in Suits” is too good for Hollywood.

This benefit concert-reading of this new play by New York playwright Jason Milligan is proof of the old adage that less is more. All you need is three chairs, three fine actors, and a well-told story.

If Hollywood gets ahold of it (and Miramax already has an option on it), it will probably turn into something tawdry and gory with lots of car chases. It is, after all, about hit men for the mob.

However, when performed with the simplicity of a concert reading - the actors sit in chairs and read their parts, while a narrator fills in the details of the action - it is closer to capturing Milligan’s intentions. The play looks into the minds of the characters, not at the blood they spill.

For instance, I loved the way the key moment in the play is presented. The two hit men, Bobby and Max, see their victim approach a pay phone in the train station. Then there is a blackout, and the next scene shows the two men in their apartment, with Bobby in a state of extreme agitation.

“So, you stuck the wrong guy,” says Max. “Big deal.”

This is a great laugh line, in the tradition of Donald Westlake’s novels about blundering criminals. But it also serves, in one sentence, to explain the pivotal moment of action in the entire play. Everything that follows is a consequence of Bobby stabbing the wrong guy, but we never even see it. We don’t have to, because the scene in our imaginations is more vivid (and funnier) than a cinematically realistic stabbing scene could ever be.

Milligan’s writing is vivid throughout this play. It is also extremely profane, in the tradition of movies like “Goodfellas.” Practically every third word is the f-word, and the dialogue is just what you’d expect of a big, dumb, New York hood. For instance, at one point, while driving through Vermont, Bobby says he doesn’t like the smell.

“It’s the country!” says Max. “I’ll bet you think the city smells good.”

“The city don’t smell at all,” says Bobby. “It’s, like, neutered. It’s immune.”

“Men in Suits” is consistently funny, and it also does a great job of developing these two goofball characters as human beings. Not very good human beings, but human beings.

The only part of the play that lacks this verisimilitude comes near the end, when Bobby and Max go to the mob boss to confess (sort of) about stabbing the wrong guy. The mob boss talks in all kinds of strange metaphors about foxes who eat their young and espresso cups that can never be mended. It all sounds very literary, but it doesn’t sound like the way a mob boss would actually talk.

The acting was exhilaratingly good. Dan Lauria proved with his first line that his range extends far past the gruff, taciturn father he played on TV’s “The Wonder Years.” His Bobby was more like something Robert DeNiro would dream up, a full-fledged Brooklyn wise guy who is subject to fits of temper, but rarely of conscience.

Cyril O’Reilly was every bit Lauria’s match as Max. Max is not exactly a model citizen either, but in O’Reilly’s performance, we can see that his big problem is not a lack of conscience, but the clear presence of one.

Both are in town to film the NBC series “Amazing Grace.” The cast of the play was rounded out by two other fine “Grace” pros, Robin Gammell as The Boss and Rebecca Thorpe as the narrator.

Lauria deserves extra credit for putting this entire benefit together. Not only did he fulfill his commitment to helping out regional professional theaters wherever he works, but he also gave Spokane a marvelous evening of theater: Theater at its most gloriously simple.


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