The Bard’s Town Theatre continues its season of notable newer work with Jonathan Marc Sherman’s 2007 “Things We Want,” a satisfying dark comedy about three emotionally-stunted adult brothers still living in their childhood home while attempting to figure out how to overcome their various fragilities before they kill themselves or each other. That sounds heavier than the play actually is—tonally, it’s a gallows humor-charged fight between the id and the super-ego with flashes of brilliance that resists taking its characters seriously enough to let them fall apart in any kind of realistic disintegration.
Middle child Sty (Scot Atkinson) is moldering in a foul alcoholic stupor on the couch while psychotically chipper Teddy (J.P. Lebangood, who also directs) pursues a chakra- and prime number-based happiness theory through a ridiculous guru scam when fragile Charlie (Ryan Watson), the youngest, abruptly returns home heartbroken, dumped, and dropped out of culinary school with a scant four months to graduation. To cheer him up, Sty calls up their cute neighbor Stella (April Singer), a recovering alcoholic with a fondness for sick animals, to comfort him, then lights out for the night. The second act fast-forwards a year, during which Sty and Teddy have basically switched lives while Charlie and Stella have been dating, which likely won’t end well.
As Charlie yells from the kitchen at one point, “this apartment is a warehouse of discontinued products,” and indeed, the brothers seem walled off from the world, letting their lives dribble away rather than face their demons head-on. Self-sabotage is one thing these brothers do well, having been damaged by their parents’ deaths and enjoying for a little too long, perhaps, the pass it gave them to ruin their own lives. Both parents committed suicide by jumping, years apart, out of the same apartment window (which broods in the middle of the set like an open wound). This Durang-ian absurdity can’t help but call to mind Oscar Wilde’s admonition that “to lose one parent may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” which turns a crippling tragedy into somewhat of a running joke.
That’s good, because otherwise we could start to feel sorry for these broken young men, and pity will kill a comedy every time. The play is extravagantly funny in a very dark way, indulging in whimsical dialogue and patently ridiculous scenarios (Stella wearing the same Catholic school uniform every year on her birthday since kindergarten) that somehow work in the hermetically-sealed terrarium of the apartment.
The play’s best trick is the lifestyle switcheroo between Sty and Teddy that allows the actors playing them to show some serious range (Watson is reliable as always as the wide-eyed brittle neurotic, but it would have been nice if Sherman had given him a broader emotional playground, too). Though Sty has less to do than Teddy with the unraveling of the family unit in the second act, Atkinson makes the most of both of his characters’ states, equally adept at portraying the drunken lout and the sober wit (the way he pronounces the cereal name “Quisp” alone is worth the price of admission). Lebangood’s not as versatile—his first act characterization is broad and stilted, he lacks the sinister subtlety needed to make the second act work, and next to an experienced talent like Atkinson, the seams on his performance show. The Bard’s Town’s productions are often directed by one of the actors, but in this case, it might have been a better choice to bring in another set of eyes and ears.
Ultimately, it’s an enjoyable and oddly relatable play that manages to make drunken man-children interesting without allowing them to be too sympathetic. The play’s ultimate question is “what does it mean to be happy?”—a quandary even the most functional beings struggle with at times. And despite its dark content, it’s not without hope, at least for Charlie and Sty, and in the case of this family and this play, two out of three maybe isn’t so bad.
“Things We Want” runs through May 18 upstairs at The Bard’s Town (1801 Bardstown Road).