The Company We Keep
Written by Jaclyn Villano, Directed by Elena Araoz; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Assistant Stage Manager, Will Carter; Set Design, Cameron Anderson; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelberg; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Design, Nathan Leigh; Fight Choreographer, Adam McLean
CAST: Marianna Bassham, John Kooi, Bill Mootos, Jessica Webb
Performances through October 21 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org
Thank goodness my theater-reviewing schedule is not etched in stone, or I would have missed the press opening of The Company We Keep by Jaclyn Villano at Boston Playwrights' Theatre last Saturday night. I would have missed a well-crafted new play with high strung characters who snap, dialogue that crackles, and scenes that pop in unanticipated ways. Director Elena Araoz takes advantage of the script's inherent tension and discomfort to create suspense and many surprises in this cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Marianna Bassham, John Kooi, Bill Mootos, and Jessica Webb breathe life into Villano's characters who are not such nice people, but whose flaws and neuroses provide rich fodder for conflict and plot.
Harry (Kooi) and Ellie (Webb) are transplants from Denver to Georgetown where he is starting a new law professorship in the department where his old friend Greg (Mootos) has a good deal of clout. Temporarily unemployed, Ellie is in charge of settling into their home while feeling unsettled about a school problem with their 12-year-old son. Jason's suspension for allegedly possessing pornography is just one of many subjects that Harry and Ellie disagree about as they prepare to welcome Greg and his wife, Ellie's best friend Katherine (Bassham), for a housewarming luncheon.
Harry is laid back, while Ellie is more than a little anal retentive and strongly dislikes the philandering Greg (a fact made crystal clear by Webb's body language and icy glares). Their battle royal about the other couple's marriage devolves into a blame game about their different parenting styles and which of them is responsible for Jason's issues. Villano's dialogue in this scene is authentically that of a long-married couple who know well which buttons to push to score points. Although they shelve the argument when their friends arrive, it lurks near the surface, bubbling up when they pepper their banter with snide or veiled remarks.
The complexities of the story are complicated by the fact that Harry, Ellie, Greg, and Katherine are all attorneys. While that fact assures that they have strong communication skills, it does not guarantee that all communications are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It also means that they are accustomed to competing as adversaries and the battleground in question is their contrasting definitions of right and wrong. Shaky alliances are forged between and within the couples, but loyalties shift like quicksilver each time new information is revealed or uncovered.
The Company We Keep is a black comedy with biting, stinging humor delivered with impeccable timing by this stellar cast of veteran actors. It is vital to keep your eyes on them at all times because they say so much with facial expressions and body language that enhances Villano's tight dialogue. Mootos enters with swagger and bravado that is fitting for what we know about Greg at the start, but he visibly shrinks into uncomfortable awkwardness when he's left alone with Ellie. Kooi plays Harry mostly as even keeled and mild mannered, but simmers before boiling into a sudden ferocity.
The women are challenged to show a broader range of emotions and handle them with aplomb. Ellie is all about appearances and keeping a lid on things. Her kitchen is pristine and even the contents of her cabinets are lined up like soldiers. The playwright gives us a quick peek into her psyche during the opening scene when Ellie chastises Harry for missing an imperceptible spot when he dusts a light fixture. Webb conveys Ellie's obsession by keeping her face taut and her gestures neat and controlled. When circumstances shift in the second act, Ellie's control becomes more manic and Webb channels Lady Macbeth scrubbing out a spill on the counter. Katherine is multi-faceted and Bassham has a field day bringing her different aspects into focus. Although she seems friendly and malleable, she is the steeliest of the four and ultimately takes control to get what she wants. However, one presumes that she does not anticipate the outcome. In a desire not to reveal the outcome or many of the twists and turns along the way, it is necessary to withhold more detailed comments about the interplay between Webb and Bassham, but their nuanced performances will grab you and tighten their grip as the play careens to its conclusion.