Review: ‘Midsummer (A Play with Songs)’

Chaon Cross and Patrick Mulvey in the Midwest premiere of “Midsummer (A Play with Songs).” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Greenhouse Theater
Center Downstairs Main Stage,
2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Oct. 6
Tickets: $20-$25
Phone: 773-404-7336

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The Midwest premiere of “Midsummer (A Play with Songs),” a co-production of the Greenhouse and Proxy Theatre, is proof that sometimes the actual story matters less than how it’s told and who does the telling.

The basic premise of Scottish playwright David Greig’s 95-minute one act play with songs by Indie favorite Gordon McIntyre (founding member and lead singer of Ballboy) is pretty much of a cliché: Mismatched 30-something man and woman meet at a pub, and their one-night stand turns into something more.

But Greig, whose script doesn’t give stage directions or indicate who is speaking (according to a program addition), has a consummate grasp of comic and ironic details and breaks down the fourth wall with a narrative style that lets the characters express their often-conflicting inner thoughts to us even as they interact with each other. And the songs, many of them duets, reveal the pairs’ feelings rather than furthering the plot.

Sorting out the specifics has been left to director Randy White, and he’s done a good job of keeping the pace brisk, the shifts in location smooth, and the complicated stream of events, emotions, and existential musings comparatively clear. That’s mostly thanks to actors Chaon Cross and Patrick Mulvey, recently seen together in Court’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” who here are perfectly matched, unlike the characters they portray. They also sing beautifully, play keyboards and various guitars, and take on all the minor parts.

Cross is Helena, a successful divorce attorney with a secret she won’t admit even to herself who has just been stood up by her married (we later learn) boyfriend. At loose ends, she approaches Bob at Whigham’s Wine Cellar during a rainstorm on the shortest night of the year, and we get their differing takes on their first conversation, both what was said and what was meant—before they get drunk and go to her place for passionate sex, convinced they’ll never see each other again after that night.

Bob is a 35-year-old petty criminal with a good heart who fears he “peaked in 1987” and whose baggage includes an ex and a son he neglected. His specialty seems to be unloading hot cars for his mobster boss, and he runs into Helena again on the steps of the cathedral after selling a pink one for 15,000 pounds and failing to get to the bank on time to deposit the money. He’s there seeking sanctuary; she’s humiliated and mortified, having just ruined her sister’s fashionable wedding accidentally, or maybe on purpose because she resents being a bridesmaid seven times and is sure her sibling’s marriage won’t last more than a year since it was an internet match.

What with one thing and another, Bob and Helena are off on a series of misadventures all over Edinburgh. Casting caution to the winds, they decide to spend the entire 15,000 pounds, which almost gets Bob killed by the mobster. They run into other night owls along the way and end up in the back room of a gay club bound together in a Japanese rope torture that forces them to be truthful with each other. Some of the worries they’ve been expressing separately pour out—Helena is afraid she’s pregnant; Bob feels guilty about his son—and by this time, we’re really rooting for them, even if Bob is set to leave town at the end of the weekend, and Helena will go back to work.

Like so much else in the frequently funny account, delivered with ideal comic timing by Cross and Mulvey, the denouement depends on a double meaning. When Helena returns to the car park to collect her automobile and learns the charge is 40 pounds, she sees an electronic message that says “Change is possible”….and takes it as a sign.

It would be hard to overstate how good Cross and Mulvey are. She is simultaneously tough and vulnerable, sexy and insecure, sarcastic and sincere, as well as surprisingly athletic. He’s a little more elusive, caring but commitment-averse, confused by her contradictions and his own impulses. In one hilarious sequence, he has a philosophical discourse with his penis and decides he’s doing better.

But no matter how they are presented, the playwright’s keen observations on life and love are bound to strike a chord, which along with the performances makes “Midsummer (A Play with Songs)” a must see despite the ho-hum title. As for McIntyre’s songs, they are sung so well, I wish there were a few more of them.