Sunday, October 14, 2012

Manning Up's Rolling Premiere Will Have You Rolling in the Aisles

By James E. Trainor III; photos by Bob Goodfellow.

Martin Andrews (l) and Jim Van Valen
Iowa City - In Sean Christopher Lewis' new comedy Manning Up, Donnie (Jim Van Valen) and Raymond (Martin Andrews) are a pair of expectant fathers who aren't sure what to expect. Hidden in their "man cave," away from their wives, they share their anxieties with each other. They're both shaken by the experience, each in his own unique way: Donnie is crying at the comfort of his new argyle socks, while Raymond has enrolled in a 3-day "maninar" in hopes of preventing the pair from losing their inner manliness. The resulting conversation is outrageous, insightful, and above all, very very funny.

Andrews and Van Valen make a perfect team. Van Valen's Donnie is squeamish and needy and works up a great deal of nervous energy, frustrating Andrews' aggressively manly Raymond. The two respond to each other well, playing the scene like a feisty game of catch, feeding into each other's monologues and physical gags and keeping the manic pace of the piece rolling along.

Each actor has created a very interesting father-to-be, each concerned with different personality flaws that could sabotage his new family. Donnie is very calm and polite on the surface, a lovable and harmless English professor, but he feels a "cauldron" of anger and resentment underneath. "I just bottle things up deep down inside until they explode," he says. To which Raymond replies, "you're an idiot savant of manliness."

Raymond, though manly enough on the exterior, is concerned about the type of father he'll be. He's seen bad dads in the world, he's angry at his own father, and he's deeply worried about his ability to keep things under control. "It's like I'm hanging on to this big wooden steering wheel," he explains. "But if I let go of it, the ship keeps going in the same direction. So what am I steering?"

The two friends, in the safety of Raymond's half-finished basement (a very effective design by Shawn Ketchum Johnson), help each other work through these issues in a series of very funny exchanges, involving primal screams, talking to empty chairs, a little bit of Lamaze, and plenty of baseball metaphors. The direction, also by Lewis, keeps this story moving at a very nice clip. The moments of serious character development don't hang around long enough to get maudlin, but are undercut by more jokes and bits of physical comedy. It fits the theme very well, as men in our culture are much more likely to tell a goofy joke about something than to open up about it. And it keeps the audience in stitches.

Lewis developed the play based in part from conversations with the actors, both of whom were recently new fathers. This gives a very realistic feel to the material, while the situations and suggestions are ridiculous enough to make for very energetic comedy. At the same time, between the setups and punchlines, it addresses a lot of the anxiety young fathers feel: Am I ready? Will I be good enough? Will I be in control? Will I be like my dad? These questions are universal, and Donnie and Raymond discover, with the rest of us, that you can never truly be ready... and maybe that's okay.

Manning Up will also receive productions at the Salt Lake Acting Company (November 7) and at Actor's Summit in Akron, Ohio (May 16). This "rolling world premiere" is a cooperation between theatres involved in the National New Play Network. Later this season, Riverside will participate in another rolling world premiere. The Exit Interview, a new play by William Missouri Downs, is receiving productions this fall at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, San Diego REP, and InterAct Theatre Company. In January, Riverside Theatre will mount its production, followed by Actor's Theatre of Charlotte and Salt Lake Acting Company in April. To learn more about NPNN, visit their website or read the article from this month's American Theatre.

Manning Up runs at Riverside Theatre through October 28, 7:30 Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 on Sundays. Call 319.338.7672 to order tickets or order them online.

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