Thursday, August 14, 2014

'Lancelot,' A World-Premiere Play By Steven Fechter, Reminds Us That We Can Never Escape Our Past

The Cast of 'Lancelot'
Photo by Evan Iskovitz

There’s something about life in the vast Great Plains that brings out the scary in some folks, regardless of how hard they try to fit in. Case in point: Ryan, the central character in Steven Fechter’s compelling and psychologically complex new drama, Lancelot, having its world premiere under the direction of Thom Fogarty at The Gym at Judson. 

Ryan is one of the managers at the Walmart-like United Goods store somewhere out in the heartland of Oklahoma, where compliant employees are rewarded with a slice of pizza and a soda for working on Thanksgiving Day and where lonely men wind up—as Ryan puts it—talking to “their horse, their truck, or their gun.” 

When we first meet up with Ryan (portrayed by Stephen James Anthony with the deer-in-the-headlights look of someone who clings to banality as a drowning man might embrace a life preserver), he seems to be the stereotypically straight-laced company man, who mixes Scoutmaster aphorisms with humble Christian prayer as he gives one of his motivational speeches to the associates in his department.

But underneath the calm, sure exterior lies a churning past that will not let him find the peace he craves, not even in the arms of his girlfriend Tara (Lulu Fogarty, who provides her character with a marvelously accentuated combo Midwestern/Southern speech pattern and a don’t-nobody-dare-get-in-my-way attitude). 

Tara is one of three significant women in Ryan’s life, the others being his antagonistic mother (whom we don’t get to meet), and Ginger (Romy Nordlinger), a sultry and sophisticated New York artist—thirteen years Ryan’s senior—who shows up one day looking for him.  Whatever it is Ginger wants, her presence shakes up Ryan’s carefully controlled life and brings out deep-seated memories, represented by the on-stage presence of his 13-year-old self (Grant Riordon, making his New York theatrical debut and more than holding his own with the rest of the more experienced cast), who eggs the grown-up Ryan into rekindling a heated past. 

If all of this sounds a tad melodramatic, it is. It also veers into a kind of psychodrama that might remind you of some of the excesses of Peter Shaffer's Equus. But the excellent actors and their director mine the script for every ounce of truth as the layers are peeled away bit by bit.  And even when we are pretty sure where things are heading, the play offers up surprising twists that prevent any of the characters from behaving exactly as we might expect. The thrill of watching the plot unfold is in seeing the walls closing in on Ryan as he strives to decide which trap door to fall through—for trap doors are all that are available to him. 

This being Lancelot’s (Lancelot is the heroic name Ryan was given at the age of 13) world premiere, it may be that the playwright will do some more tinkering. There is a reenactment of a court scene near the end that does go on rather longer than it needs to, and it also seems that the play as it stands offers us two separate endings, one cynical and one hopeful.  For what it’s worth, I much prefer the cynical ending; it seems more in keeping with the overall tone.  

Lancelot, which contains nudity and scenes of sexual activity, has a running time of 90 minutes. It is slated to run through August 29.

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