Being able to see new work is one of the real thrills of theater in the Twin Cities. With plenty of support — both from audiences and organizations — playwrights are able to scratch the itch to create.
For the theatergoer, this means there's a steady diet of new things to see, be it a commission from one of the established theaters or a creation of a particular group of artists at any one of the smaller venues around town, or in showcases like the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
Of course, that doesn't mean everything on display is a creative triumph. Often, the challenge is finding the wheat amid the chaff. Stuart Fail and Theatre Gemini are new players in the area, but they do come with plenty of previous experience in other locales. Consider the Lilies, playing through the end of the month at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, is still in the stage where the wheat and chaff are intermixed, meaning that there is a lot of work that has to be done by the audience to locate the quality within the play.
There is much happening in this drama, which centers on a painter and his agent, first living in Paris and then in New York. Issues about the creative process, of losing your way in mid-career, swirl around the play. Yet at the core is an honest examination of the debilitating effects of mental illness. At its heart, the play is absolutely bracing, but it takes a while to get to those moments.
For the majority of the play, we live with just two characters: painter Paul Harold (Al Saks) and his agent David Phillips (Eric Joshua Davis). Earlier in his career, Paul had some major successes, including a famous painting of lilies that made his fortune. Since then, he has fallen on tough times, partly because of his own self-destructive behavior. Paul wears his troubled emotions on his sleeve, experiencing wild mood swings. In the opening minutes, he flies between highs and lows, drinks heavily, and wants nothing to do with an evening reception at a nearby Parisian gallery.
David appears as a rock compared to this, patiently working with his client to get him to the reception, to encourage him to create, and to support him at every turn. It becomes clear that there is more between David and Paul than just a normal agent-client relationship. He has moved to Paris from New York City — leaving a serious girlfriend behind — to be close to Paul, his one and only client.
As the play develops, moving apartments from Paris to New York City between acts, it is clear that these two have locked into an emotional feedback loop. Adding a layer to all of it is that Paul is gay, while David is insistently straight — though it is clear that something emotional binds them together.
Fail's script is best at these moments, especially when looking at David's mostly silent and invisible troubles. Eric Joshua Davis plays it extremely well, keeping the character's cauldron of emotions in check for most of the proceedings. Saks, on the other hand, plays all of Paul's tics and eccentricities and drinking to the hilt (I hope the decanter used in the production is full of water, or the actor would be threatened with alcohol poisoning each night).
That's the wheat. The chaff? There are multiple tangents along the way, sometimes leading to storytelling cul-de-sacs such as a theft at the Paris gallery (all of Paul's current work is stolen) that is mentioned once and never taken any further. There is also plenty of repetition in scenes that cover territory — both emotionally and plot-wise — that have already been well explored.
Fail opens the play up to new characters midway through the second act. While her performance is fine, Jessica Grams's Angela (David's aforementioned girlfriend) is underwritten, and her motivations lack the complexity we've seen from the two leads. Elsewhere, Chris DeVaan is barely present as young artist Zack, whose flat line reading fits more with a poor community theater production than a world-premiere drama.
All of this makes for a piece of theater that is more frustrating than satisfying, though it is one patient viewers might find worthwhile to explore.