Review by Kathleen Campion
Hal & Bee sets itself the task of art; the task of working out what it’s all about. They get a C+.
The two main characters, Hal and Bee, have been married so long they cannot even do the math! Let us say decades, spanning the vital and combative 1960s to the vile and contentious now.
Bee is a woman on a mission. She is running as fast as she can, to escape the crowded, grim, rent-stabilized life she and her husband Hal have devolved to. She gives us flashes of their young selves — protests, drugs, running from the police. You can almost smell the patchouli! She shows us that once they shared a time full of sex and righteous indignation, standing up to “the Man! “ And now, there is only each other. Death looms large, or maybe less actual death than living hell.
Hal is a man in retreat. He is hiding and collapsing as fast as he can, stoned 24/7, escaping his crowded, grim, rent-stabilized life with video games, a pointless blog, and awash in narcissistic regret. You just want to smack him into next week.
These actors Candy Buckley (Bee) and Jeff Hayenga (Hal) are gripping. Bee slams into scene one, fresh from work at the museum, pours herself a stiff scotch, telling Hal about the groaning, man-spreader on the subway and you just love her. She’s us. Hal opens with disregard for her, a stoned otherness, a childlike self-absorption and, again, you just want to smack him. So, the actors get us going!
They propel us toward the conclusion — the message that life is depressingly predictable and most of us peak way too soon. Here’s the problem: We get there maybe 60 minutes into the 100 minute production.
That said, even after you “get it,” there are more entertaining and, even philosophically compelling moments to come. For example, Max Baker’s script presents us with the “bug man,” the Russian bear of a man who arrives to spray for bugs. Ian Poake plays the proprietor of “Don’t Bug Me” as a philosopher king in khaki.
In an especially well-honed piece of business, while opining on annihilation and adaptability, seemingly regarding infestation, Poake’s character drifts effortlessly into lofty metaphor. He cites his Russian mother’s resigned wisdom —( in case you missed the earlier delivery of “message”) :
THE BUG MAN
Let me tell you: …there is saying. My mother told me, her mother told her: Как только игра закончена, король и пешка вернутся в ту же коробку. For you, it means: :Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in same box.”
The fourth character in our quartet of actors is “Moon” (Lisa Jill Anderson). Moon, so named by her erstwhile-hippie parents, is an UWS girl of her time. Self-diagnosed as suffering from Only Child Syndrome, Moon is a fast-talking, entitled millennial. Anderson delivers her profanity-laced screeds with both conviction and a strangely charming aplomb. Moon could have been shrill and tedious but Anderson makes us like her. She hits her marks — signaling to the audience that her parents, Hal & Bee, are a little nuts — she loves them and all, but, a little nuts. She “babybirds” in and out of their increasingly dreary nest. (Oddly, the numbers don’t add up which is subtly off-putting. If Hal & Bee were in the streets in ’68, their child should be well beyond college and the search for first love.)
There were some powerhouse moments, violent moments, that fight director Scott Barrow pulled off with some dazzle. Theater C at 59E59 is a small room with a shallow stage, so the bloodletting was-up-close-and-personal, and, often, way too convincing.
Hal & Bee plays straight through, using blackouts without a real intermission. Director Sarah Norris gets what she needs from each of the actors. Add to that, while it is a long evening, she pushes through the tricky details of setting and re-setting the scene and, more importantly, the emotional re-wind her actors must establish.
Brian Dudkiewicz’s set is skin-crawlingly claustrophobic, ideally serving the script.
Not sure it is fair to reference the audience but here goes. For the first 25 minutes there was more whispered conversation than you might wish during the scene changes. Some thought Moon talked too fast. (She didn’t.) Some thought Bee was beautifully dressed. (She was.) One woman thought her partner laughed at an inappropriate moment. Point being — everyone was quite engaged and that died off quickly.
So — compelling performances, well directed and supported by production staff, addressing a subject we all struggle with — what could go wrong? There’s nothing wrong with Hal & Bee, it just goes on too long. I’m glad I saw it.
Hal & Bee – By Max Baker; directed by Sarah Norris.
WITH: Candy Buckley (Bee), Jeff Hayenga (Hal), Lisa Jill Anderson (Moon), Ian Poake (The Bug Man).
Designed by Brian Dudkiewicz; costumes by Genevieve V. Beller; lighting by Michael O’Connor, sound by Andy Evan Cohen, and Scott Barrow handled fight direction. Presented by Stable Cable Lab Co. and New Light Theater Project. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; (212) 279-4200, ticketcentral.com. Through March 31. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.