As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same performance of Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s “All Childish Things: The Special Edition” on June 1, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:
If you recently felt a tremor in the Force, something you haven’t felt since … well, the last time Joseph Zettelmaier’s “All Childish Things” was produced … it’s likely because the Roustabout Theatre Troupe (co-founded by Zettelmaier, Joey Albright and Anna Simmons) has mounted a new “special edition” of the “Star Wars” collectibles heist comedy that runs through June 17 at Milan’s McComb Performing Arts Center.
“Childish” marks the first full production staged by Roustabout, and like “Star Wars” editions available on DVD, it’s received several tweaks and updates since its 2006 world premiere production at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre.
Set in a basement apartment where “Star Wars” memorabilia occupies every shelf and surface, “Childish” is the story of three longtime male friends (and one girlfriend) who, after months of meticulous planning, aim to rob a nearby Kenner Toys warehouse. Reportedly, the ultimate stash of classic “Star Wars” collectibles is hidden there, and because an anonymous buyer is willing to pay two million dollars for it, each nerdy and unlikely heist participant starts daydreaming and making plans. Dave (Dan Johnson), who lives in the basement, aims to get his own place; Max (Andy Gaitens), a single dad, wants security and a better life for his four year old daughter; and Carter (Jacob Hodgson), who works a low-pay job at Kenner, plans to cut a record with his rock band and show Kendra (Meghan VanArsdalen) – a film studies grad who works at a nearby cinema and isn’t all that into “Star Wars” – he’s serious about their future together.
DC: I find it interesting that two of the last three shows we’ve reviewed have scripts by Joe Zettelmaier, and oddly enough, both are from earlier in his career. So for me, taking a fresh look at “All Childish Things,” of which I saw the world premiere in 2006 and also a handful of subsequent productions and sequels, gives me a chance to see how well the script holds up a decade later. But more importantly, I wanted to check out the first full production produced by Roustabout Theatre Troupe.
JM: Yes, it’s always exciting to see the first full production from a new company. And weirdly, given how much Zettelmaier work we’ve taken in, I was just assigned to review the upcoming Penny Seats Theatre production of his play “The Gravedigger.” So the Year of Joe continues! As with actor Dan Johnson, it feels like we’re stalking Zettelmaier…
DC: It does indeed. Dan’s been everywhere this season, it seems, and now here we are with almost back-to-back Zettelmaier shows. The stalking list grows! (laughs)
JM: So you said you were interested in seeing how the material held up 10 years later. What’s the verdict?
DC: I still love the script. And since “Star Wars” is STILL such a major cultural phenomenon and huge money maker – and since nerds are still with us and always WILL be – it holds up quite well.
JM: That’s interesting, because – light sabers down, everyone – it didn’t hold up as well for me.
DC: Was it the script or the production itself? For me, it was the latter.
JM: Well, I caught most of the riffs on and allusions to “Star Wars,” and chuckled a few times and thought, “That’s cute,” but I never felt completely plugged in. I wasn’t swept up in it – which good heist narratives do, of course. And to answer your question, I’ve been thinking about whether it was the script or the production a lot, but I’m still not sure. As we dig into this, I’m hoping it will become more clear. What were your issues with the production?
DC: It took me a while to warm up to the show as well, and I think it was because of some of the performances. As much as I love Dan Johnson, who seems like he’d be the perfect nerd, I felt his and Andy Gaitens’ performances as Dave and Max, respectively, were a bit too wild, too out of control at times, so much so that I sometimes had trouble understanding them when their emotions and anxieties soared. And Gaitens, especially, seemed a bit all over the place with his performance; it wasn’t a polished performance, in my opinion, which distracted me at times.
JM: I think getting the tone exactly right for this show is pretty crucial, and yes, that was part of what was off for me. It’s hard to gauge. You have to be true to their nerd-dom, yet we have to be able to relate to them, too.
DC: Yes, and that was my problem with them: I couldn’t relate to them – which as a fellow nerd, shouldn’t be difficult for me. (laughs) I just wasn’t “feeling” it for much of the first act.
JM: And as gorgeous as Milan High’s theater space is, it felt too big, too open and airy, for this story. At Planet Ant, I kind of felt like I was in that claustrophobic basement with the characters – so there was a vicarious joy and thrill in being part of this ill-fated heist.
DC: I agree, even though Jennifer Maiseloff’s set couldn’t have been more basement like. She had a lot of space to fill, and she did it without sacrificing what it was meant to be – a lived-in basement.
JM: The attention to detail is impressive, from the shelving to the basic layout and furniture choices. It really does look like a basement apartment kind of set-up. But as I said, the size of the venue seemed to be adding an extra challenge.
DC: Agreed. This script needs to be done in a small black-box space in which – as you point out – the audience is squeezed into the space along with the characters. I think that helps the audience get invested in the characters; you become one of them – and you feel their energy and excitement and get caught up in it with them.
JM: It’s so interesting to me how much the performance space impacts the show. In fact, the exaggerated acting tone, I’d guess, stemmed from the actors (and the director, Joey Albright) instincts to fill that expansive space with bigger gestures, bigger statements.
DC: That could be. But then the performances of Jacob Hodgson and Jon Davidson as Carter and Max show you don’t need to go over the top to fill the space. Now, I totally understand the differences in how their characters are conceived and written, but they gave very slick, controlled, nuanced – and polished – performances that drew and focused my attention to them. Their performances were far more in line with the cast from the original production at Planet Ant than with this one.
JM: What I found odd was that this time, I kept feeling like these characters seemed more pathetic, and less sympathetic, than they had been previously. I know that sounds harsh, but the small-ness of their lives, and their obsession with what are, in the end, children’s toys, just seemed less compelling to me this time around. Maybe that’s also a function of the times we’re living in. But it’s definitely how I was feeling.
DC: No, I felt that too. In earlier productions, you couldn’t help but root for these guys. They may be a bit misguided, but they were likable. Even Meghan VanArsdalen’s Kendra – the icky girlfriend who intrudes into the all-boys’ club – seemed a little harsher than I’ve seen in past productions.
JM: In the spirit of Princess Leia, Kendra has to be spiky and hard-edged, of course. But I also didn’t connect all that much with her this time around.
DC: So what did you LIKE about the production?
JM: I really did like Maiseloff’s set. Venue issues aside, I loved how I could keep looking at its many nooks and crannies and notice even more little things of interest on stage. I think that came to mind first, because the set had a sense of fun about it – and that’s what I think the production needed more of.
DC: I loved the “vault” – inside which we never actually see, except for the superb lighting effect by Alex Gay. And I also wanted to go up and play with some of the toys – but I knew better. I bet props designer Ben Despard had a blast finding all this stuff!
JM: The vault put me in mind of the glowing suitcase in “Pulp Fiction” – which was an homage to the ‘50s film classic “Kiss Me Deadly,” if you want to go all the way back. But it’s a fun effect, definitely.
DC: It certainly allows everyone in the audience to imagine for themselves how enormous the vault is and what treasures are stored in it.
JM: I also appreciated that Despard, who designed the costumes as well, made pointed but not-too-self-conscious choices. I was happy to see Big Man not decked out head to toe in Darth Vader black, but in a colorful track suit. Though he gives off the air of danger, there’s a casualness to his malevolence – and I thought that worked. The banality of evil and all that…
DC: (laughs) Oh, exactly. When one conjures up the image of a gangster, they picture a Tony Soprano type. That’s not Davidson at all. Yet he truly becomes this geeky, yet dangerous thug in such a way that you can’t help but like him, too. He’s just another nerd. But a very dangerous nerd.
JM: And it fit perfectly with the way Davidson played the role, which I appreciated. The idea of a “Star Wars” fanatic mobster is kind of irresistible.
DC: It is indeed. What did you think of Hodgson’s performance?
JM: This marked the first time I’d seen him on stage in a long time. I appreciated his performance, but it struck me that there’s not a lot of meat to that role. More of interest gets revealed about his character late in the show, but up until then, we just have a few pieces to put together about him.
DC: Yes, the second act is where we learn more about the character. And it’s where Hodgson’s skill as an actor shines. I kept watching him after the gang returns from their adventure, and his eyes and face reveal quite a bit. it’s a pleasure to have him back on a local stage.
JM: Carter’s story arc gets much more interesting after he’s wounded – and Hodgson did play that part really well.
JM: Let me ask you about the title, which is becoming a thing with me. It’s drawn, I presume, from the biblical verse about how, once you grow up, you put away childish things. So the idea seems to be that what we’re seeing is a group of people who are at the point of needing to complete that transition into adulthood.
DC: I agree. And it’s a transition that many males seem to resisting and taking much longer to do these days. The guys in Joe’s play, though, take it to the extremes. I wouldn’t recommend their plan of action to other basement dwellers. (laughs)
JM: It’s a really perfect, concise summation for the story – even though I questioned one of the characters setting another up to work for “the dark side” at the end. But you at least get to see how things from that point will now change for each of them. Though that basement may never lose its tenant. Sorry, Mom!
DC: (laughs) He’ll sure be richer, though! Actually, that ending was an interesting twist, I thought.
JM: Yes, I did, too. And I wondered if forgiveness would come that easily for those involved. I have to think lingering distrust among the friends would ensue.
DC: Maybe the sequels address that! (laughs)
JM: Though as it is, we might have to start calling ourselves Platonic Theater Daters Who Only See Zettelmaier Plays.
DC: OLD Zettelmaier plays! (laughs) So what’s your bottom line?
JM: Hmm. I guess I’d say this production might be most appreciated by “Star Wars” geeks, and/or people who are closely following and love Joe Z’s work. But overall, I felt lukewarm (um, pun intended?) about the show. I’m excited about Roustabout, and I look forward to seeing what they do next, but this was, in my opinion, more of a decent start rather than a wow-inducing one. (God, have you noticed we sound like the very nerds featured in this play? “The original was better!”)
DC: We do, don’t we? Well, I AM known as the Cranky Critic, so I guess it fits! (laughs) I, too, would recommend the show to “Star Wars” fans. But I suspect some who see “All Childish Things” for the first time may walk away with a different impression than we have; they’ll have nothing to compare it to like we do. So I don’t want to discourage anyone from checking it out. Especially since I think it’s important to support our newest theaters. And I think Roustabout has the ingredients to become a popular voice in the region.
JM: May the Force be with them …