Playwrights frequently knock down the fourth wall between the stage and the audience, but in The Perfect Chocolate Milkshake, playwright Lee August Praley knocks down the first wall – the one between the playwright and the stage. Some guys can do this successfully – Pirandello, certainly, and probably Stoppard – but Praley, at least at this stage of his development, does not.
We begin with the Narrator (Praley), sitting at his desk, banging out something on a battered electric typewriter. He is morose. He has accomplished nothing. His prospects are bleak. His love life is as barren as a snow plain in Antarctica. He is horrified by the prose coming out of his typewriter and he tears it up as fast as he types it. That is to say, he is like everyone in the world with artistic pretensions at the age of 23, except, again, Stoppard.
After he mediates on his misery a bit (and, believe me, a bit goes a long way), a story begins to materialize in front of him. Frank (Alex Vaughn) and Caden (Zachary Fernebok) are glazed with a sweet love for each other. For Frank’s mom (Julia Ebell) and dad (Christian Sullivan), on the other hand, love has sat in the oven too long, and is now a burned-out shell. Frank’s sister (Kelly Hennessy) casts a scathing denunciation at Frank and Caden for their gay love which, she avers, will send not only them but all of us in the audience to Hell.
Her theological musings, though vigorously set forth, do not remain with her very long. Soon she is commiserating with her brother over the up-and-down elements of his relationship with Caden, which she compares to her own up-and-down relationship with someone named Cody Stephenson. Eventually mom and dad break up, without fanfare or, apparently, great interest.
It is while mom and dad are apart that dad reveals, without any perceivable motivation, how to make a perfect chocolate milkshake. This part is a huge disappointment, in that dad does not reveal how much bourbon he uses, or even what brand. He then reveals that his time on the planet is coming to an end – a startling plot development which is left to lie in the dust.
By and by, Bill (Arturo Tolentino), a child disturbingly reminiscent of Martin Short’s Ed Grimsley character, materializes carrying a time capsule from 2010. (The play is apparently set in the distant future, or distant enough so that bananas will be extinct). Praley makes a funny first-wall joke, which I dasn’t tell you. Frank and Caden decide to adopt Bill, which, because Bill’s parents aren’t in the cast, is perfectly fine with everyone.
Throughout all this, the characters (I don’t mean the actors) seemed bored. So was I. The Narrator must have been too, since he seized control of the play in order to lecture about – carpets. This, as you might imagine, was not terribly successful.
There are some good things about this enterprise. Praley is a fine writer, and there are some funny lines. There are limits to being a fine writer, though. George Will is an excellent writer, but I don’t think I’d want to see a play he wrote.
Sullivan is very good in this production, as he has been in everything I’ve seen him in. I bought Frank and Caden’s relationship. The video design (Aaron Fisher) is excellent, and there is some cool original music by Harrison Adams. There is a funny scene in which Praley plays a banjo and sings in harmony with Hennessy’s weeping, and it is surprisingly effective musically as well.
But by and large this show is not worth the struggle to understand it. Ebell is so flat and affectless that she seems deliberately so. But why would director Bryan Joseph Lee require her to deliver her dialogue in a monotone? Bill and the Sister skate perilously close to self-parody, although I must say that the Sister’s lines are so extravagantly written that I’m not sure there is a better read than the one Hennessy gave them. Most tellingly, none of the stories go anywhere, and we are never permitted to care about the characters. In short, the narrative shoots itself in the foot, repeatedly.
The Perfect Chocolate Milkshake seems like a set of symbols and signposts that only someone who knows Praley’s inner thinking could interpret. We must remember that theater is mythmaking. Joseph Campbell once said that a myth is a public dream, while a dream is a private myth. The Perfect Chocolate Milkshake appears to be the privatizing of a dream, which can take the audience perilously close to sleep.
The Perfect Chocolate Milkshake
By Lee August Praley
Directed by Bryan Joseph Lee
Produced by Useless Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 60 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?