The unofficial rules for crafting a successful play also tend to apply to compiling the perfect mixtape: tell a compelling story, know your audience but keep them guessing, set a tone, stick to your theme, and when in doubt, always keep it short. And while Brad Baron’s autobiographical new play, Last Ditch Playlist, may flout that last rule, his pitch-perfect piece hits a lot of high notes.
Last Ditch Playlist examines the rise and fall of Baron’s first relationship in his early 20s via a series of memories tied to specific songs (the show is structured around music, but is not a musical—there’s no singing, but there is some dancing, which I’ll get to in a moment). The story of this relationship is told through movement, Facebook chats, phone calls, conversations over meals, snippets of fairy tales, and more. The structure is innovative and intelligently deployed, keeping the audience on its toes as it moves back and forth through time and space.
Baron plays Aaron, an actor touring with a children’s show in Iowa who fantasizes about his life turning into a romantic comedy and has earnestness and the desire to be loved practically oozing out of his pores. Ross McCorkell plays Wes, the object of his affection, who he’s long-distance dating from New Jersey. He’s a chemical engineer by day, dancer by night, and full-time hipster who will absolutely refuse to speak to you until you validate all his opinions on the supremacy of Joanna Newsom.
Last Ditch Playlist
closes July 12, 2017
Wes is pretty clearly defined as the villain, although Baron’s writing and McCorkell’s nuanced portrayal gives him just enough vulnerability and insecurity to keep it from being a hit piece. (It’s alluded to in the play and Baron has revealed that he encouraged his real-life ex to read the script and he affirmed the accuracy of the portrayal, which is a frankly alarming amount of self-recognition). Aaron, however, can be just as maddening—the desire to run up on stage and shake him, yelling at him to stop apologizing and letting Wes walk all over him becomes almost too much bear at points.
Dontonio Demarco shows great versatility (no pun intended) as Aaron’s straight best friend, Kellan, and as Willie, a man who tries to pick Aaron up in a club in Iowa. Amy Stringer plays Lexi, Aaron’s best gal pal, and also Zara, a much more complicated character from Aaron’s past who is scapegoated as the source of much of his feelings of co-dependence and fear of abandonment. Granted, Zara is Aaron’s mental version of Zara rather than the real thing, but the malevolence with which he’s imbued her sometimes made me feel… well, icky is the best word I can use to describe it.
The show is extremely polished and laugh-out-loud funny at times—Baron is clearly a gifted writer. The scene between Willie and Aaron in the club is particularly charming, while Wes’s “culturist” diatribes are snarkily delicious. The cast, overall, is game and talented, ingeniously transforming four folding chairs, a rehearsal cube, and a few small props into a fully realized world. McCorkell performs Casey Bagnell’s choreography gracefully and with great feeling, although the movement pieces don’t feel truly integrated into the piece.
Last Ditch Playlist’s biggest fault, however, is that it’s much too much of a good thing. The play is long—which is only exacerbated by Fringe’s intermission-less structure—and really begins to drag in its final third. The opening scene is the end of the relationship, and even after the scene is revisited later in the piece, marking the logical end of the story, it keeps going for several more scenes. The false endings serve only to distract from everything that’s so wonderful about the play, and I think with some editing, Baron can turn the script into something even punchier and more enjoyable.
Overall, Last Ditch Playlist is clever, heartfelt, and frustrating—in a good way. It’s refreshing to see a relationship between two gay men through the kind of tender-but-flawed lens that we take for granted when heterosexual couples are the subject—even down to the frank talk about the finer details of man-on-man sex that aren’t often discussed in pop culture. Aaron doesn’t get the typical Hollywood rom-com ending he so desperately desires, but Last Ditch Playlist does adhere to most important rule of both mixtape- and theatre-making: the rules are made to be broken.
Last Ditch Playlist by Brad Baron. Directed by Brad Baron. Featuring: Brad Baron, Ross McCorkell, Amy Stringer, and Dontonio Demarco. Choreographer: Casey Bagnall. Lighting design: James Johnson. Music and sound design: Jason Pomerantz. Produced by Brad Baron. Reviewed by John Bavoso.