What to do with so-called "couch plays," which tend to pivot on talk over action and are generally set in a living room? It's a common concern for many directors; they either try to infuse them with movement or avoid them altogether. So the fact that Theater of the Expendable is staging a new play with a setting that never departs from a living room—and has a couch as its focal point—is, in an unlikely way, something of a risk. I'm not sure it's a successful one, but for a short one-act play, it was worth a shot. You do feel as if you're in the title character's living room while watching The Tragedy of John. The Studio Theater in Theater Row is intimate, and the audience, which faces the couch, is in the same physical location as John's (Liam Joynt) beloved TV set. Television seems to be the main activity in his world, and he is already watching it as everyone enters. There's also a well-stocked bar, although John and his poker buddies seem to prefer beer. And this, apparently, is John's life.
In a larger space, playwright Neal Zupancic's slice-of-life piece would have been swallowed whole. As it is, director Corinne Neal has allowed the play's first half to become weighed down with lengthy pauses between lines and Joynt's intentionally blasé, depressed monotone as John. An unspoken catastrophic event two years ago has turned the character into a recluse who won't leave the house.
Despite his crusty, indifferent attitude, for some reason he seems to have a group of people who want to be around him. Maybe he was once incredibly charismatic. Maybe they're hoping he'll start making cookies again, which, according to his best friend, Steve (Nathan Brisby), would be worth the wait.
Or could it be that they're worried about him—that they're loyal to him in response to some past kindness? John has, after all, taken in a down-on-her-luck friend, Amy (Desiree Matthews), although he's nice to her only occasionally. Amy clearly has her sights set on John, but he's not interested.
Meanwhile, Steve brings over his new friend, Julia (Christina Shipp), whom he's crazy about while blissfully oblivious to her cocaine habit. But Julia's more interested in John. Despite the fact that she seems to do everything that John claims to despise about women—she presses him for personal information, coaxes him out of the house, and bakes him cookies (he hates it when women cook for him)—he falls for her almost immediately.
Maybe it's because the play is mostly talk and the setting is so intimate, but some of the later scenes with just two actors have the feel of a well-rehearsed piece for a scene-study class. They're well done but sort of awkwardly out of place. For instance, Matthews's cheery, practical Amy clashes nicely with Shipp's intense, quixotic personality as Julia. But it's hard to tell if they're actually getting along or engaging in a barely masked fight. And Joynt and Shipp's pillow talk scene is sort of charming but almost too intensely earnest compared with the rest of the play.
Brisby and Matthews have a funny argument over sitting in John's spot on the couch. But Brisby's spurts of anger toward the play's end seem too sudden and explosive when set against what is mostly people just hanging out, talking, and watching movies.
It would be easy to say that a play where two beautiful women fling themselves at a man who hasn't left his couch in two years isn't logical, but then we've probably all seen some version of this in real life, though perhaps not as extreme. In fact, though John only occasionally says anything kind or of particular interest, it's partly what he doesn't say (or do), the mystery around him, that gets him so much attention. I certainly wanted to know what landed him on the couch.
Though the awkward pauses never disappear entirely, by the play's second half they are largely overshadowed by the momentum that comes from the characters trying to figure out John's mystery. It was interesting to watch in the way you want to get to the end of a novel, whether good or bad, just to find out what happens, or if anything will happen at all.
The actual ending was sort of a pleasant surprise, with the entire story hinging on a one-liner, which shows some structural cleverness on Zupancic's part. It's a pretty good one-liner, but not everyone may find it worth spending an hour and 20 minutes to get there.