A subdued hipster vibe was in effect the evening I attended The Optimist, a new play by Jason Chimonides. The sound system piped in Radiohead, lots of people dressed in black seemed to know each other, and the show started a casual 15 minutes late. And, because the play’s action takes place in a motel room, each audience member received a souvenir Optimist room key card along with the program. Unfortunately, this ultimately silly play made me want to check out early. Directed by Jace Alexander, best known as the director of FX’s Rescue Me, The Optimist is about a pair of “well-bred and intelligent” (from the press release) 20-something fraternal twin brothers, Noel and Declan. The brothers hole up for a weekend in an Econo Lodge in Tallahassee to attend both the funeral of a friend who died in some sort of riding accident, and the wedding of their widower father to the woman with whom he carried on a 30-year adulterous affair. The volatile Noel blames his father for his mother’s death, accusing him of letting her drive when he knew she suffered from post-stroke seizures. On top of all this, Noel’s ex-girlfriend, Nicole, whom he still secretly loves, is in town for the funeral.
Unfortunately, Matt Burns as Noel and Chris Thorn as Declan thoroughly overact their parts, much like extreme, self-obsessed personalities might on, oh, perhaps a cable TV show. Caitlin FitzGerald tries hard as Nicole, but she can’t compete with the oozing macho bluster of both brothers. Her character is ineffectual and easily drowned out for most of the play.
The looming ceremonies stir up a whole lot of emo in the excitable Noel, who constantly stomps around the room, often in his underwear. He angrily glues his father’s secret love letters onto a giant wooden middle finger he plans to hold up at the wedding. He yanks mattresses and box springs from the beds to create a makeshift boxing ring in the room; he wants to fight his father (a former vet and Notre Dame linebacker nicknamed “Hambone”) to relieve his considerable Oedipal angst. Noel blasts Nirvana on his CD player, screams “arrgggghhh” a lot, and bounces off walls. And, just in case the audience can’t fully grasp the psychic pain Noel is in, Chimonides/Alexander make him attempt to eat the share of his friend’s ashes that her family gives to him. This scene proved to be, unintentionally, the funniest of the play. Noel tortures himself relentlessly; the play would have been more appropriately titled The Masochist.
Declan observes all of this with amusement, yet he is equally annoying. Declan is the terminally preppy kid in your dorm who takes one too many bong hits and rambles on about Schopenhauer. While smarmy and self-important, deep down, all Declan really wants to do is drink and get laid. Chris Thorn so consciously acts the role that, like Noel, Declan is more of a caricature than a believable character.
Chimonides unfortunately forgoes a potential powder keg of a conflict by failing to introduce us to the 66 year-old Hambone, by far the most interesting personality in the play, but Hambone is just a sub-plot, after all. In the second act, it becomes apparent that The Optimist is really about the relationship between Noel and Nicole. Nicole explains why she has moved to Nebraska and why she plans to wed a demolitions expert with no soul. She calls Noel an “optimist” because he expects everything to behave in accordance with his laws and truly feels whatever life happens to toss his way—unlike the demolitions expert, come to think of it. Nicole begins to fall for Noel all over again. But, alas, Noel has, during the course of this brief weekend, learned a heck of a lot about himself and so throws a monkey wrench in Nicole’s sudden plans. Oh, and something else pretty major, but not really, happens. That’s about it.
On the positive side, Travis McHale’s set perfectly replicates a double room at an Econo Lodge, right down to the air vents near the ceiling, the exit signs on the back of the door, and even the stucco on the hallway walls.
Mr. Chimonides’ play has one or two clever moments, particularly when Declan ruminates on mortality, but these don’t come frequently enough to save this sometimes-embarrassing play. Just call me a realist.