The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Adam Roberts, December 2, 2011, Arts

American Bear

The Hideout Backstage, 617 Congress, 522-4083
Through Dec. 17
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

The family reunited makes for one hearty staple of a situation on which to base a play. In every age, distanced kin return time and again to their roots through the words of the canon's foremost playwrights. The recipes of these reunion dramas often call for similar fixings: long-held secrets revealed, unspeakable events from the past brought to the fore, and at least one instance of fight choreography. One can find each of these ingredients in Larry Mitchell's new play American Bear, presented by Theatre en Bloc. Unfortunately, though, they're a bit stale.

There's not much that one can say about the plot of American Bear sans a spoiler alert. The basic premise goes something like this: Following a two-year absence, trucker Eddie arrives at his parents' home in Kansas with new fiancée Lonnie at his side. We learn early on that Eddie's return is motivated by the news of his parents' death in a freak auto accident. Awaiting Eddie is his older brother, Jules, who hibernates on the couch amid countless crumpled beer cans that once inhabited a picnic cooler next to the TV remote. Secrets are revealed, unspeakable events are brought to the fore, and fight choreography ensues. The situation feels more like a tired spin on a timeless template than an innovative new take on things.

Due to the immense popularity of reunion plays (not to mention the abundance of masterfully written ones), the choice to create a new addition to the category is not without its burdens. To submit for membership in a genre bursting with powerhouses like August: Osage County and Long Day's Journey Into Night (to name just two hallmark examples) is to thrust oneself into the major leagues of drama. Unfortunately, American Bear just can't compete. The twists can be spotted easily before they're revealed, and the dialogue moves at a plodding tempo. Though the company's website indicates that "there are tones of great playwrights like O'Neill or Shepard in the piece," Bear struggles mightily to live in the shadow of its older, more mature siblings Jenny Lavery (Lonnie), Derek Kolluri (Jules), and Deven Kolluri (Eddie) attempt valiantly to scale the script, but the footholds just aren't there to support them, and none of the characters ever reaches its summit.

To peruse the company's website and playbill does make for quite an intriguing read. Theatre all together: This is Theatre en Bloc's mission. With Lavery doubling as lighting designer, Derek Kolluri as set designer, and five directors credited (including playwright Mitchell, both Kolluris, Lavery, and Blake Addyson), many hats are clearly worn by all in this tight-knit theatre family. Its current production notwithstanding, Theatre en Bloc does seem to promote the riff on an old adage: "The family that plays together stays together." If that's true, I'm looking forward to watching this burgeoning company of artists grow, experiment, and discover its footing in future productions.

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