The five men that reunite in The Most Damaging Wound could have fallen prey to any number of clichés found in tales of male bonding, with tales of sexual braggadocio and drunken heart-to-hearts leading up to a night of epiphany that Changes their Lives Forever. The remarkable thing about Blair Singer’s fantastic new play is just how adroitly he maneuvers around all of them and charts his own original course, helped enormously by the camaraderie of his perfectly-cast ensemble. Wound is a knowing play, with a keen understanding of the nuances of how male friendship develops and morphs over time. While they may differ from female relationships, they nonetheless require attention or face the threat of erosion, something Singer’s characters confront in the play. Fresh from their college days at Syracuse roughly fifteen years earlier, this quintet of friends gathers at an Upper East Side restaurant soon to be opened by GG (Michael Solomon) to celebrate the birth of Kenny’s (Ken Matthews) first son by burning a time capsule from the undergrad days, inspired by Robert Bly’s Iron John. Alan, (Michael Szeles), a pharmaceutical lobbyist, has traveled up from Washington, DC; Dicky (Chris Thorn), has come down from Boston; and Bo (Bard Goodrich), hails from the New York area.
Director Mark Armstrong immediately eliminates any distance between audience and actors in Manhattan Theatre Source’s confined performance space (April Bartlett’s set is perfect for their spare stage). Among other things, Wound is to be praised for the director's sense of economy in storytelling. None of Singer’s characters tell us anything for the sake of lazy exposition, and we never learn much about any character.
Take, for example, the specter of father figures that hangs over several of the characters. Singer provides enough information for us to know that Ken had an abusive father of some sort, that both Dick and GG’s fathers have provided for their sons’ varied career paths, and that Bo’s father is slowly losing a battle to an aggressive form of cancer. These references are subtle enough to shade in the characters without overpowering them. For every time I had a question about a character’s history, I found myself feeling grateful that Singer refrained from spoon-feeding me too much information.
Singer also provides the perfect conduit to introduce us to these men in the form of Christine (Megan Mcquillan), Alan’s mistress. Her entrance into the play is welcome not only because it ups the dynamic but also because it shifts the prism through which the audience sees this male quintet. She is an outsider, but also possesses a more intimate knowledge of Alan, which allows her to fit right into this group. Through her, we learn more about each character’s past, and their connections to each other. Bo, for example, was a gay musician known on the northeast college circuit before going sober. His closest friend was the hard-partying Dick, whose inability to quit his old ways is one reason for their current estrangement. Ken’s discovery of Christine, meanwhile, rocks what he considers to be the foundation of his strong friendship with Alan.
Armstrong’s keen eye supports every one of Singer’s directives in this unequal quadrangle. Watch how carefully he blocks each scene so that Solomon’s body language reinforces GG’s feelings of being an outsider. (The actor does very nimble work to convey what it is to belong to a group of friends, but only on its periphery.) And pay attention to the look in Matthews’ eyes when Alan is talking. Much like the playwright, Armstrong too is deliberate with the details of his staging. There is something going on at all times in every area of the small stage. Every prop and accessory, from a wayward cell phone to the ring on a character’s finger, is there for a reason.
Furthermore, his actors know what to do to make every moment count in Wound. Often, when actors are without dialogue, they either lose character or refuse to cede the spotlight to a co-star out of ego. These actors know how to fill the spaces between bigger moments; one can look at any character who is not currently the centerpiece of the action and see them furthering their storyline in non-verbal ways. This completes the tableau and allows all events to unfold in an organic way, a skill often absent elsewhere.
As a result, Wound works as a showpiece for each of its stellar stars. Matthews leads the pack with a carefully measured performance of fear and loyalty that leaves the actor emotionally bare; I marvel at his ability to define precisely the right magnitude of emotion for Ken without toppling the play by being too heavy. Thorn has a trickier role. It looks easy to play a fun-loving guy; it doesn’t look like work. But he provides a lot of dimension to show the pathos behind the partying in one heck of a performance. And Szeles’ and Goodrich’s best work is in the scenes with their counterparts.
Mcquillan, too, is a real gift. Her performance is as much of a clarion call as that of her male counterparts, with her confident presence and syrupy voice. It is seductive but also unmistakable real, making it easy to see how Alan and all other men might fall for her. She is able to make us believe that she has led an entire life offstage – one that she would be eager to toss aside for a life with Alan. In just an hour and a half, Singer fashions an entire world for each of these characters, which, problems and all, looks mighty inviting. I certainly left this show longing to have been friends with each of them.
Equal parts diverting and riveting, always deeply human, The Most Damaging Wound is easily one of the best plays of the year.