Pen at the Guthrie Theater Dowling Studio through November 25
Michal Daniel

It's 1969, but instead of making the groovy scene, high school senior Matt (Marc Halsey) spends much of his time cooped up at home with cranky, paraplegic, divorced mother Helen (Michelle Barber). Matt himself is no prince; he's seeing a shrink after a recent arrest for shoplifting, and in early exchanges Halsey paints him as semi-disturbed and definitely locked into a dynamic that later word-coiners would call codependent. Barber is sardonic and wittily negative in the early scenes, adopting an abrasive voice and masterfully spinning everything into a bummer (when Helen sees Bob Hope on the TV screen, she croaks, "I hate this man. He's evil."). Salvation of a sort appears for Matt in the form of dad Jerry (Philip Callen), an aging hipster peddling a self-help book who convinces Matt to apply to Stanford and move with him to California (thus escaping Helen's strychnine clutches). Playwright David Marshall Grant moves these characters about with facility and a nice touch for one-liners. He then resorts to a sort of magical realism in the second act, in which Matt takes on Helen's affliction and frees her from her wheelchair. It's fine as far as it goes, and director Rob Melrose steers Barber and Callen into a creepy intimacy in a bar scene in which Helen disguises her appearance and gets hit on by her ex. A New Year's Eve scene follows in which the nuclear family is reunited. Halsey's twitchy adolescent tics go into overdrive, and Callen rings true as a guy without much depth who simply wants to escape his past. Barber is a heartbreaker here, investing Helen with the false hope of bringing her husband home, then reverting back to nihilism and the deadpan irony she perfected in the early going. While this is undeniably a nicely crafted piece of work, it moves along without much urgency or sense of breaking new ground. Despite its recent pedigree, the play feels as though it could have come from the period it depicts, a fairly tepid drama about small middle-class tragedies. Matt will get his jailbreak; in fact, you see it coming from a mile away. And then you escape the theater yourself, happy just to be done with it all.

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