In casting the wonderful actors Patrick Mulvey and Chaon Cross, director Randy White has turned this Midwest premiere of “Midsummer (A Play With Songs)” into a reunion of sorts.
Last spring, Mulvey and Cross starred in Court Theatre’s adaptation of Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March.” The reunion is a welcome one, due not only to the pair’s incendiary onstage chemistry but also because it helps shed light on why this comparatively slighter play (with songs) is an immensely more vibrant piece of theater.
Whereas “Augie March” practically pickled itself in its self-importance, “Midsummer” — written by David Grieg with music by Gordon McIntyre — is bubbling with unfussy wit, charm and inventiveness. Both shows paint portraits of well-meaning ne’er-do-wells, but only “Midsummer” is willing to get down in the gutter with its characters and splash around in the muck.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe “Midsummer” is in relation to “Once,” the 2007 melancholically twee Irish film about indie musicians in love, which was later adapted for the stage. Like “Once,” “Midsummer” concerns a brief romance between two strangers, and features plaintive, mid-aughts-style rock tunes. But Grieg’s distinctive, puckish voice and prose-poem writing style make this play (with songs) something utterly unique.
Mulvey plays Bob, a small-time crook and ex-aspiring musician while Cross portrays Helena, a cynical divorce attorney recently given over to bouts of unheeded sobbing. The pair also inhabit a number of other characters, including a diminutive gangster, a germophobic 12-year-old, various teenage goths, and even Bob’s Ted Talk-ish internal monologue. Between them, Mulvey and Cross divvy up Grieg’s third-person prose, a solid block of text that waxes and wanes between monologue and dialogue — and apparently includes no indications as to which actor is to perform which lines.
When the play opens, Bob and Helena are intertwined on Helena’s bed. They’ve just met at a wine bar earlier that night, hitting it off more by convenience than anything else. After they part the next day, their paths are drawn back together via disaster. When Bob is unable to deposit (which is to say “launder”) a large sum of ill-gotten money, he finds himself with a Tesco bag full of cash and a need to hide out for a while. Helena, meanwhile, is late to her sister’s wedding, a bad situation that she makes immeasurably worse by accidentally knocking her beloved nephew into a pile of her vomit.
With nowhere else to go, Bob and Helena turn to each other for company. Secure in the lack of sexual tension between them, they decide to make the best of it, setting out on an adventure that is in constant threat of turning genuinely romantic. Throughout it all, they occasionally break into songs that bear the dry, urbane mark of McIntyre’s former indie band, Ballboy. Having both just recently turned 35, Bob and Helena confront a debilitating case of existential panic. Bob’s is especially acute, as his knack for turning potential into disappointment has left him with very little to call his own.
As evidenced by anyone who caught his play “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” when it’s toured through Chicago Shakespeare, the pretension of Grieg’s formal ambitions are cut nicely by his warmth and nose for outright silliness: Bob and Helena are set on their path by a parking kiosk that helpfully informs them “Change is Possible.” And like “Prudencia,” “Midsummer” also calls for a minimalist staging that White and movement designer Dan Plehal deliver to great effect.
Mulvey and Cross’s limber, exuberant performances are enough to tell this story, with only a few well-measured touches from designers Brandon Wardell (lights), Mark Smith (set), Anthony Churchill (sound), and Ellen MacKay (costumes) needed to make the whole show coalesce. The two actors even play their own instruments.
“Midsummer” is a play that can’t hide its dewy-eyed love for, well, love. Unlike the very bittersweet take on the subject offered by “Once,” “Midsummer” spits out the bitter and doubles down on the sweet. Even as it contains far more drinking, drug use, sex, swearing, and general adult-themed tomfoolery, “Midsummer” offers quite the childlike worldview. It’s a little disappointing in the end, but still a welcome respite from shows that insist on an adult seriousness because they lack the imagination to evoke sincere — and, yes, childlike — wonder.
Alex Huntsberger is a freelance writer.