STAGE REVIEW : ‘Moonchildren’: College Roomies, Circa ’68
The first thing that anyone following the growth of the Friends and Artists Theatre Ensemble should notice is that their new show, Michael Weller’s “Moonchildren,” is not Swiss absurdism or German expressionism.
The young company tackled the former with its first production, Max Frisch’s “The Firebugs,” and the latter with its follow-up work, Peter Weiss’ “Marat-Sade.” Near-impossible plays for any ensemble. These reminded you that, in order to run, artists must fall from time to time.
With “Moonchildren,” everyone is in top condition.
Weller’s play examines the unraveling relationships among a group of precocious, strong-willed, altruistic and self-centered college students living in a rundown flat, circa 1968 (Robert Zentis’ kitchen set, a jungle of witty details, shows the smudged side of the Age of Aquarius).
The spirit infecting both the play and Ron Max’s production is more yippie than SDS, which only sets the personal tragedies (especially that of Robert Hallak’s Bob) in higher, finer relief. Dick (Artie Gerunda) is the strong, silent, serious type, but he drinks milk by the gallon and stacks the empty bottles all over the kitchen. Who knows why, but it seems just the sort of thing a college student would do.
“Moonchildren” best succeeds in capturing the inscrutable but instantly recognizable behavior of young people, expanding every second with the helium of ego yet terrified of the future. For a 1972 play, it shows a remarkably distanced perspective on the period, so that after about the fifth time one roomie cusses another out, it makes you think twice about the “Peace and Love Generation.”
Maybe that was a line of hype (it did devolve into the “Me Generation” soon after). Weller isn’t that cynical; he maintains a keen satirist’s edge without resorting to comic butchering at the expense of his characters’ humanity.
Kathy (Maria Rocha) looks fairly silly trying to hold onto Bob, when the draft board notice has pretty much turned him into a basket case and not very good boyfriend material. But we understand her persistence in goading him to express his feelings--if he doesn’t, he’ll explode (Hallak beautifully shows the emotions trying to bubble to the surface). We also see why she runs to Dick, the sanest warm body at hand.
Talk about complications. Weller has packed enough in for a few plays, which is a problem. A bigger one is his insatiable need to bring on new characters, as if comedy was an excuse for a variety act. George Murdock pops in and out of view, performing his usual full-blooded best as the half-cracked landlord. But it’s an actor’s part, not one that resides in the play.
There’s such an effervescence running through this cast that Weller’s shoot-from-the-hip style (his strength and his vice) doesn’t leave the audience bewildered. Jon Simpson and Clay Wilcox play the house clowns with just the right overdose of collegiate abandon--and, of course, they both graduate summa cum laude.
Rocha and Mimi Davies’ Ruth fill all the available space Weller allows these women, which isn’t much. Robert Arntz’s Norman, a nerdy math student who gives new meaning to the term four eyes , is the odd man out, until he starts reading about Vietnam. Arntz turns a potential cliche into an affectingly comic creation.
The aesthete wishes that Weller could have cut the parade of throwaway walk-ons, but the theatergoer is charmed by how Max’s walk-ons march center stage and take over. This is a company maturing before your eyes and not forgetting to have serious fun while they’re at it.
Performances are at 1761 N. Vermont Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. , indefinitely. Tickets: $12; (213) 664-0680.