Get Cultured — February 8, 2016 at 12:45 pm

“Utility” Studies the Repercussions of a Monotonous Life

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The United States of America is a big place. It is a composition of 50 small countries that somehow exist under one government. Going from one of these states to another could be as different as crossing the Atlantic. You might as well if you’re going from this city we call home to the southern states. The hectic hustle that this city embraces is one that does not even exist in those suburbs, where life is slower and simpler. Plays about families in the south are a mixed bag for me. Sometimes they are charming and tap into universal themes to create their dramas. Those fascinate me. Then there are others that seem to bask in the regional quirks and the small town conflicts that gives the neighborhood something to talk about. Those bore me. Most of the latter seem to be written for a community in specific, and do not connect with me. I am doubtful that it connects with many New Yorkers. So when the first words from Emily Schwend’s Utility came out with the southern twang, that’s the first dilemma that came to my head.

“Utility” is a play that studies this way of life through the eyes of an over worked mother and her on-and-off husband. Every day is the same; everyday the troubles come from slight changes to the plans. The plans that are always made in the morning when you assess the day and have had your coffee. But when she decides to take her husband back, and try this life she thinks she wants again, that’s when the plot starts. Amber (Vanessa Vache) has a birthday party to throw in a few days; she has to do this while working two jobs and dealing with this confusing relationship. Her brother-in-law seems to love her secretly, but acts indifferent when she is around. Completing this cast is the stereotypical Southern mother, who obviously loves her good for nothing son in law and creates her own little soap operas to be entertained. She rounds up a fun ensemble to live on the spectacular stage designed by Kate Noll.

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The ingredients for this to be an impressive production were there, but once the show started going I realized that they weren’t used to their full potential. Besides the acting, which was divided between two great performances, an endearing one and one that I’ll soon forget, the script betrayed its own story way too often. Vache as Amber was the anchor, and she did it with a combinations of strength and vulnerability. She manages to portray a woman lost in regular life, and hurt by what was never offered from it. When Melissa Hurst and her share the stage, I could feel their chemistry and felt a love for what they represented. She couldn’t find anyone else on stage that she could connect with like they both did with each other. Alex Grubbs is adorable as the good man’s man in love with his brother’s wife. While his struggle to communicate comes out as delightful, his part was underwritten. Yet the best scene was between him and Vache, almost at the end of the play, when they both question their lives. Chris, played by James Kautz, had dictated their actions for a long time, and now this was what was left of their time on earth.

It is really the show’s weakest link that this actor could not keep up with the rest. Besides his accent, which he would turn on and off at will, his posture, which was exaggerated, his idea of what a southern man is, seems to have been lifted from old films instead of the nuances of the day to day. It was distracting. It wasn’t helped by the script, which seemed to be a work in progress. While the relationships are smartly written, the plot has some holes that could not be ignored. For example, it is established that Chris and Amber have been together since High School, on and off. Yet Amber’s first kid is not his… Now we all know how this can happen, but all that is mentioned is that her dad might come to the party. A reference to how Chris would feel follows, but nothing else. Did she cheat on him? That will take away the power of her own realization to Chris’ affairs. So did they break up and within that time frame she got pregnant? Definitely possible, but how long were they away from each other? And if they are high school sweethearts, how come her first kid was someone else’s? All of this has an explanation outside the play, but when the question a plot beat poses is more interesting than the question the plot itself is based upon, the show has lost its audience. And that wasn’t the only example.

Like I said at the beginning, plays based on the south are a crap shoot for me. Some have defined how I look at other cultures, some have put me off from ever seeing another, and then there’s “Utility.” The play is not for me, but it could be for someone else. I wonder if Chris would have been more convincing, would I have been more interested? His first scene took me out of it, and it was the first scene of the show. But hey like I said, the show not being for me doesn’t mean it is not for you! Check it out at 224 Waverly Place where it will be playing till February 20th. Comment below if you agree or disagree!

Out of 4 stars:

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Twisted Talk: Have you seen ‘Utility?’ How did you like the production? Discuss below!

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