the side project’s Mike & Seth – Champagne Existentialism

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Highly Recommended: TheatreInChicago.com Review Round Up

Reviewed by: James Murray

Daniel Talbott’s highly entertaining and thoughtful new play at the side project in Rogers Park, Mike & Seth is a play about the ultimate bromance between two lifelong friends, Mike (who is straight) & Seth (gay), two trust fund kids who want for nothing but have too much.  It takes place in the early morning hours before Mike’s wedding to his fiancé as Mike shares all of the joys, fears and doubts that accompany this milestone in a man’s life.

Seth is just coming out of a bad relationship with a man he deeply loves who is a schmuck, openly cheats on him and wants him primarily for his money.  All Seth wants is to find a man that possesses the qualities of Mike while Mike wishes that his finance had all of Seth’s qualities (and even remarks that if Seth had some of the anatomical parts of a woman he would marry him instead).  Throughout the evening we learn that these men will never attain the intimacy they share with another and this is the closest they will ever be again.

The action takes place in the Ritz Carleton during a blizzard in Dallas, Texas with Mike drinking beers and watching pay per view porn.  As we hear the girl on the television play out every man’s fantasy regarding oral sex in graphic detail (Mike even says that he has never had sex with a girl who responds to oral sex with as much gusto) Seth bursts into the room, obviously angry at Mike.  This prompts an evening of confessions, disappointments, fears and dreams.

Playwright Daniel Talbott has a flair for rhythm and dialogue that is funny, poignant and viscerally descriptive.  Mike & Seth is obviously a deeply personal story for him and his ability to pen something that is so deceptively well- constructed while appearing completely organic is quite a feat.  The rhythms and musicality of the script are a direct correlation to the relationships of the two men – playful, explosive, emotional, witty, intimate and raw.

One of the several themes of Talbott’s play covers the topic of people who have been given everything in life and how empty their lives are.  Seth’s speech where he discusses a young beautiful lean eighteen year old boy grabbing at his crotch as he anxiously waits for his shallow girlfriend to arrive speaks to the millennia’s inability to connect and share intimacy with another.   She has her face buried in her iPhone as she texts other people, never even looking up at him.  This stirs feeling of jealousy in Seth because this is all he wants – to be desired by someone as much as he desires.  Seth is an old-fashioned, down to earth gay guy whom love from another seems to elude. Highly perceptive he talks about the march of time we all face as we near the cliff and loss of the halcyon days of our wasted youths.  And for what?  Moments of pleasure?  Escape?  We have lost our way and purpose.

The play also touches on the elusive nature of fidelity and fear of commitment.  As he consumes beer after beer Mike confesses to Seth that he has had an attempted affair in the back seat of a car with another woman which made him ill.  Guilty, he fears he will let down the woman he loves, Sam (clever to have a masculine name for Mike’s fiancé) and the dread of becoming middle aged, fat and boring.  We come to find out however that his biggest fear is losing his individuality and that he will never have the special relationship with his fiancé that he shares with Seth.  Both men also realize that time and responsibilities will come between them even though they promise to remain close.

Director Adam Webster could not have cast this show any better and draws stellar performances out of two highly experienced actors, Derek Garza (Mike) and Michael Manocchio (Seth).  These two brilliant, honest and fearless actors are so good in fact that it appears they are making the script up as they go along (an astounding feat and the kind of organic honesty that all actors strive for).  These two have such chemistry together that they appear to be two halves of a whole and so completely in sync with one another’s rhythm that you believe these two have known each other for a lifetime – this is the real marriage.  What I found touching is at the end of 75 minutes these two men are closer than they will ever be again and drift off to sleep with Mike holding Seth in his arms.  In the next few hours their lives will completely change and they will never have this again.

Whenever I see a production at the side project I am amazed at how they transform and utilize their tiny space on a bare-bones budget.  Although Adam Webster’s set design is good in intent it lacks in execution.   I never believed that we were in a suite at the Ritz Carleton.  While the furniture was appropriately expensive looking the walls and floor were not.  They both were lacking in money, elegance and detail which appears to be the result of budgetary constraints.  While distracting, the two performances quickly make you overlook this flaw.

Michael C. Smith’s lighting design was superb.  Stephen Gawrit’s sound design for the show was likewise well done however the ambient sounds of flushing toilets (the men spend a lot of time in there) was coming out of the wrong speaker and did not sound like it was coming from the bathroom.  There were also other ambient noises that were somewhat distracting.

This Jeff Recommended production (well deserved) is a must see for the two performances of Derek Garza and Michael Manocchio alone.  It is a rare event to witness such honest acting on a Chicago stage where much of the time it is manufactured instead of felt.  The time flies (always a good sign for a new work) and I was entertained, amused and moved by Talbott’s delightful script and the beautiful bromance between Mike & Seth.

Mike & Seth runs through August 24 at the side project 1439 West Jarvis.  Box Office – 773-340-0140.