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A CurtainUp Review
The Muscles In Our Toes

"High school is everything and nothing—and to try to bring a foreigner into that—I'm speaking metaphorically—it's way too confusing."
The Muscles In Our Toes
(L-R) Matthew Maher, Bill Dawes, Mather Zickel, and Amir Arison (Photo: Monique Carboni)
At his twenty-five-year high school reunion Les (Bill Dawes), a fight choreographer for theater and film, sits alone at the piano in the music room, playing somber songs in tribute to his friend Jim (Samuel Ray Gates), a sneaker magnate who he believes has been kidnapped by a radical Chadian terrorist group. Slowly, he's joined by the rest of his old crew: Reg (Amir Arison), a civil servant of Persian descent; Dante (Mather Zickel), recently separated from his wife and newly converted to Judaism; and Dante's younger brother Phil (Matthew Maher), a self-described "complex gay man" who decided to tag along to his brother's reunion because he's such a people person.

As the group reconverges tensions old and new rise to the surface. Even twenty years hasn't been long enough for Dante to get over the betrayal of Reg's affair with his high school flame Carrie (Jeanine Serralles). Carrie, meanwhile, is still looking for attention from whoever will give it to her. Phil seems perpetually frustrated with his outsider status—whether as a gay man or simply as the younger kid who was never a full-fledged member of the group. Disputes about politics and religion arise every now and then, too, but ideologies merely mask the underlying issues: disappointments from high school and from the life that has come after.

Stephen Belber's The Muscles In Our Toes, which the Labyrinth Theater Company is now premiering at the Bank Street Theater with Anne Kauffman directing, is, in essence, a play about relationships, rather than one with any sort of conflict and resolution. As a result, there's a lot more talking than there is doing, which risks stagnancy. Quick-witted dialogue and a great cast operating under smooth direction from Kauffman keep things compelling and entertaining; yet some kinks in the script prove hard to work around.

The high point of the production, playing through July 13, is by far the work of the ensemble. The performers leap with ease and seamlessly between the play's comic and dramatic poles, and their strong chemistry helps to invigorate an otherwise-talky play.

In the intimate Bank Street space, six is a large cast (the space itself only has around 85 seats, split between two clusters on the left and right sides of the stage). As such, it's particularly noteworthy how the actors share the space, clearly and consistently asserting the presence of each character while also giving each other room to figuratively and literally occupy the stage. They are aided by Lee Savage's set design, which makes strategic use of the somewhat awkward space. That may sound like a minor detail, but it has a significant impact in the creation of the play's environment and energy.

The characters themselves are somewhat unevenly developed. Jim feels more like a deus ex machina than a fleshed out addition to the group, while the effort to make Phil more than a cliche gay character overcompensates to the point that he feels incoherent at times. Phil's relationship to the group also feels inconsistent: sometimes he seems to be linked to the other characters primarily through Dante, but other times he seems to have his own substantial relationships with them that aren't mediated by his brother. The latter feel created as a means to an end rather than out of the play's reality.

While the characters claim that the catalyst for their actions in the play is their desire to do something about Jim's situation, it becomes clear that Jim is more of a convenient excuse than anyone's actual motivation. In fact, they seem to be responding to their personal failures and letdowns. In each other's company, their internal reflections on these disappointments externally coalesce into an increasingly outlandish series of ideas for ways to change the world and make a difference. Ultimately, they seem to be responding to being in each other's company, how their lives have let them down. The frustration from these failures and letdowns coalesces into an increasingly outlandish series of ideas for ways to change the world and make a difference.

As this happens, the play becomes progressively crazier and the characters almost revert to their high-school (or even younger) selves. The zaniness overtakes groundedness, and the play ends feeling like it's run out of steam. There's still plenty to enjoy about The Muscles In Our Toes—it's certainly well-performed and entertaining on the whole—but where the cracks are visible, they prove unfortunately distracting.

The Muscles In Our Toes by Stephen Belber
Directed by Anne Kauffman

with Amir Arison (Reg), Bill Dawes (Les), Samuel Ray Gates (Jim), Matthew Maher (Phil), Jeanine Serralles (Carrie), and Mather Zickel (Dante)
Scenic Design: Lee Savage
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Fight Director: David Anzuelo
Production Manager: Peter L. Smith
Stage Manager: Vanessa Coakley
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Produced by Labyrinth Theater Company
Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street
Tickets: $20;
From 6/14/2014; opening 6/26/2014, closing 7/13/2014
Performance times: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 7 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm (no performances July 4 or 5)
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 6/21/14 performance
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