As inspirations go, the combination of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is certainly an odd one, yet those sources are echoed in Max Baker’s charming, offbeat comedy Hal & Bee.
The title characters are an aging hippie couple. Hal (Jeff Hayenga) is a blocked writer who hangs around their apartment all day, flipping through cable channels and writing on his blog, which, he boasts, has 652 subscribers: “There’s still a few of us out there fighting the good fight.” He rarely leaves their digs on West 99th Street because he claims to be agoraphobic. And he’s always vaping pot.
Bee (Candy Buckley) holds down a job and supports them. Each night she makes a beeline—excuse the pun—for the liquor shelf. More practical than Hal, she becomes upset when they receive a letter offering them $30,000 to vacate their rent-controlled apartment. But Hal, a classic 1960s activist, calms her. Tenants’ rights are as familiar to him as antiwar rhetoric, and he rails against cable-TV news reports about drones and air strikes in Afghanistan as well as corporate interests. If one thing instills energy into him, it’s injustice.
Baker isn’t offering another portrayal of aging activists undone by America’s rightward swing—or not merely. A sudden violent act at the end of the first scene comes as a shock, no less than the apparent resurrection of the victim. It’s the constant friction between Hal and Bee and their failure to move forward that interests him. When Hal bemoans his daily routine, Bee calls him on it:
If you’re comparing sitting at home all day, smoking pot, writing a paragraph of jaded musings whenever the mood strikes you to working 40-plus hours a week in an airless, oppressive office with an asshole boss and pressure deadlines, you’d better be ready for a shitstorm of a fucking argument.
Although the two are yoked together for better or worse, Hal’s indolence gives him time for indulging in Walter Mitty–like fantasies that become increasingly inventive and comedic. Still, Hal comes up with some sharp observations about current events: “The Digital Revolution may have saved some trees, but it’s killing rational literacy,” he says.
Meanwhile, their daughter Moon (Lisa Jill Anderson) checks in periodically. She’s a chip off the old block, dealing in marijuana, calling her father “dude,” and fretting over the “plastic island” in the ocean. (There really is such a thing.) She’s a student at Columbia, but bridles at her situation: “Know what I’ve mortgaged my future for? Basically? A piece of paper with the word degree on it. That piece of paper binds me to debt for the rest of my life.”
The self-involved Hal connects enough with Moon to ask her not to swear so much and to correct her bad grammar (he usefully defines “lie” vs. “lay,” which several current plays elsewhere get wrong), but otherwise he’s paying scant attention. For him, her boyfriend Fry is “the guy that worked at Red Lobster.” The exasperated Moon replies, “Yeah, he worked at Red Lobster, but he’s a musician, ’kay? You don’t have to focus on the one thing that makes him sound like a loser.”
Directed deftly by Sarah Norris, Baker’s portrait of family dysfunction is rich in detail, from the cluttered set by Brian Dudkiewicz, including vinyl records, to the performances themselves. Hayenga is by turns irate, affectionate and manic as Hal. Buckley is delightful as Bee, caustic sometimes, and yet much more light-hearted with her daughter—there’s a moment when she hops across the stage to get some playing cards that speaks volumes about the woman trapped inside the exasperated worker bee she has become.
It’s a rueful portrait of firebrands, beset now by aging, ennui and life’s daily problems, the last reflected by an exterminator who arrives to spray for cockroaches. In a brief interlude, Arthur Kriklivy as the Russian-accented bug man brings a welcome contrast of composure and patience to the frantic proceedings; his drily comic line “I am the lone wolf” is accompanied by a flash of personal charisma as well. (The part is normally played by Ian Poake, who was ill the night I attended, but Kriklivy was ready for his moment.)
Baker has a good sense of the 1960s zeitgeist. Hal & Bee conveys a sense of the impotence of those voices that once were in the vanguard to forge a better society. Yet as the world's oppressors seem never to change, it suggests that adaptation is ultimately necessary, if not for survival, for contentment. The bug man has a sober Russian proverb for this outlook on life: “When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in same box.”
A production of Stable Cable Lab Co. and New Light Theater Project, Hal & Bee runs at 59E59 Theaters (between Park and Madison avenues) through March 31. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, with an additional matinee on March 31. For tickets and information, visit 59e59.org.