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A CurtainUp London Review
On An Average Day

You know what it's like to have your dream come true? And show up with a gun? -- Robert
On An Average Day
Kyle MacLachlan as Jack and Woody Harrelson as Robert
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
The curtain goes up. Woody Harrelson is just sitting there, reading a newspaper. The audience cheers and stamps. If reading a newspaper is all it takes to get this kind of reaction, what will happen when Woody starts acting? Or when Kyle MacLachlan appears? So, I reflect, does it really matter what I write? We are in the fame zone and An Average Day is a star vehicle. But what kind of vehicle?

Well, we seem to be in a bleak place of murderous brothers, lost hopes, wasted lives and blighted emotions. This is the territory mapped out by Sam Shepard and Raymond Carver and even the magnificent set (by Scott Pask) looks like a decayed version of the kitchen of Shepard's True West. An Average Day is today in an indeterminate part of the USA - I suspect all local references have been removed so as not to confuse a British audience. All we know is that the nearest bar is twenty miles away, so this isn't Los Angeles, or New York.

Bobby (Woody Harrelson) is in his kitchen when brother Jack (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives clutching a brown paper bag. The pair haven't seen each other in twenty three years but, strangely, they seem to carry on as if nothing has changed. Bobby is wild, jumpy, verbal and unhinged. Older brother Jack is sensible, practical and wears a collar and tie. We gradually learn that their father deserted them when Bobby was eight, that Jack raised Bobby until he, too, abandoned him without warning. With these issues on the kitchen table we begin to suspect the play's title is ironic.

So far, so bad. But it gets worse: Bobby has problems. In fact he is a walking textbook of psychiatric disorders. He has bi-polar, attention deficit, obsessive-compulsive, paranoid schizophrenia, as well as antisocial personality disorder, the one that used to get you called a psychopath. Due to one pointless violent eruption he is now on trial, though inexplicably out on bail. "What are the charges?" asks Jack. "You name it," Bobby replies.

Jack always sorted out Bobby's problems when they were kids, often with his fists. Now Bobby believes Jack has turned up to save him again in his hour of need. But things are not what they seem: Jack did not even know of Bobby's crisis. Jack has an agenda of his own and before the play is done the past has been uprooted and a pistol has been fired.

This summary may well give you a sense of déjà vu. On An Average Day works well enough on an immediate level, but seems insufficiently rooted in reality, let alone locality. If you start asking yourself questions - Where is the mother? How has Bobby survived? Where has Jack been all this time? Why today of all days? - the magic vanishes and the play seems absurd. In a bad way. But you don't ask yourself these questions while you're riveted by Woody Harrelson's whirlwind portrayal of the over-wound Bobby. He dominates the stage like a panther in a cage. Which is bad news for Kyle MacLachlan. His superficially cool, but deeply troubled Jack is convincing, but the writing lets the character recede too far into the background ever to emerge later with the strength he needs. This is a weakness of the writing rather than the competent direction of John Crowley. MacLachlan has a couple of showcase monologues, but these come over as creative writing class exercises rather than really advancing the action or revealing the character.

Not that there isn't good writing by newcomer John Kolvenbach, but his gift seems to be more in the vein of Albee-like sinister urban comedy rather than faux-naïve rural instensity. Some of the early exchanges have the deranged vigour of the best Seinfeld routines - helped by the unsettling presence of a refrigerator - but then the play moves predictably towards pathos and a too perfunctory ending. The differences between the brothers have been too heavily underlined for the climax to be much of a surprise.

My companion suggests the whole piece could be seen as Bobby's compensatory dream-fantasy as he faces the prospect of a life in jail, and it's hard to argue with that. You will have your own ideas. For me On An Average Day is a vehicle with at least one wheel missing. However, you may simply want to go and enjoy an evening of spectacular acting. Both performances could be a little more nuanced, but Kyle MacLachlan is compelling and Woody Harrelson certainly deserves his cheers. I'd just prefer to have seen how they'd manage as Algy and Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest.

On An Average Day
Written by John Kolvenbach
Directed by John Crowley

Designed by Scott Pask
Starring: Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Fergus O'Hare for Aura
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1731
Booking to 27th October 2002
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 8th July 2002 performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 (Tube Stations: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square)
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