From The Iceman Cometh toEverybody Comes to Rick’s, the play that became Casablanca, bars are quite the theatrical place to be. And why not? Between the free-flowing spirits and chance encounters with strangers, one never knows who one might meet, and what one might say when one does. Twins Honey (Rebecca Challis) and Troy (David Tully) experience both the highs and lows of that situation in Brian Dykstra’s Hiding Behind Comets, directed by John Trevellini at Nicu’s Spoon. The two are basically idling through life – no ambition, no real responsibility. The most pressing concern on this given night – for both of them, oddly enough – is when Troy is going to hook up with Honey’s friend Erin (Kiran Malhotra) and how early they can shut down the bar in order to head to a friend’s party.
Then in walks in Cole (Olivre Conant), an older gentleman. At first he seems innocuous enough, though as Comets unfolds, it seems as though Cole has an agenda all his own.
This development is both to Dykstra’s credit and his play’s detriment. The first half of Comets feels like a bit of a trifle, showing the aimless ways of young small-town life, and allows its three very talented younger actors to shine (no disrespect to Conant). As the play’s messages emerge, however, it drastically shifts the whole tone of the performance. The second half of the show, then, takes a drastic detour, shoving these three characters to the back burner as Cole takes center stage.
This shift might have made more sense in earlier incarnations of the play, which ran in two separate acts. Trevellini’s version wisely eschews the intermission, which makes for a better-paced, harder-hitting production, but one that nonetheless feels bipolar at worst and lopsided at best, making the show’s first half feel more like a mere prelude than a legitimate part of the drama.
Comets is a cousin of the various nature-versus-nuture works that have pondered whether a descendant of Hitler could also be capable of the Holocaust. Cole extensively relives the last days of Jonestown, the largest mass suicide in history. One of his chief questions is to ponder whether any living relatives of Jim Jones might be capable of the same atrocities.
Though Conant does a masterful job of escalating his character’s menace, delivering close to an hour's worth of powerful monologues, one problem with a lot of this dialogue is that Cole’s history lesson Jonestown will either feel like too much of a lecture to those unfamiliar with the topic or too redundant to those who remember it. Additionally, as Cole emerges as an obsessive figure who may or may not have a personal connection to Honey and Troy, the play reduces the two of them to passive characters. I watched Challis’s and Tully’s reactions during the latter part of the play, and the two do a tremendous job of remaining in character, perfect examples of active listening.
Yet what each of them does in the play’s early moments should not go unrecognized. Tully appears to be one of those actors who can tap into even the most minute detail; in just a handful of moments, I felt I knew a ton about Troy: his loyalty, his virility, his ability to stand up to adversity. Challis is blessed with juicier material, delivered with relish, particularly as she explains just how deep her connection to her twin brother goes.
Trevellini’s staging is also smart, but also comes with a minor problem. He makes the entire theater take the form of the bar, so the four characters move around the audience at various times. This plunges them right into the action, but it also means that at various points, various audience member’s views of certain characters are obstructed. Steven Wolf’s light design also adds to Comets heavy atmosphere without calling attention to itself.
Still, Honey, Troy, Erin and Cole are among the four more interesting people one is apt to encounter on a night out. Comets is a show worth patronizing.