ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
One Million Butterflies
By Elyse Sommer
One Million Butterflies arrived at Primary Stages with all the earmarks of a solo show likely to gain altitude. It's penned by Stephen Belber whose work I've previously admired and stars Matthew Mabe, who memorably portrayed Joe Orton in Nasty Little Secrets and the morphine addict Billy in High Life (both at Primary Stages).
The peg on which Mr. Belber has hung his story of Will, a macho type would-be novelist in his late twenties, is the disappearance of a beloved younger brother which sends him on a cross country journey. Will at one point declares "I hate people who drive cross-country and then insist on telling everyone about their journey by way of truth-quest anecdotes and foggy, metaphoric, route 66 dream sequences." Yet it is just such a familiar journey that the author has sent him on.
It doesn't take long into the road-tripping monologue to realize that Will is looking (in a rather unfocused way) for more than the elusive Tree (that's the brother's name, not some tall Maple or Elm with leaves that shed -- the chasing of which is a game played by Will as a boy with his friend Chris and visibly recollected on stage). Actually, Will is distancing himself from June, the lady love with whom he's been extraordinarily happy but whose pregnancy has triggered problems with permanent commitments -- whether that means a living with another person for the long pull and having a family or writing a novel Adding to the overarching situation of the missing brother and the shaky relationship, is the fact that as Will is now headed West, his old friend Chris is incurably ill (A.I.D.S)a nd has moved back East to his parental home to die.
Mr. Belber's writing is often stunning, with vivid, if often overblown images flying all over the place like the leaves on the set that evoke what Will describes as the " November season" his relationship with June has reached. Belber's script gives Mr. Mabe ample opportunity to test himself as a soloist who can bring to life the unseen characters as well as the one dominating the stage. These include Will's and friend Chris's mothers, June and the assorted folks he encounters during his mile-eating ride to bittersweet self-discovery. Mabe slips in and out of these personalities skillfully, though he would have done better playing the women straight.
Director Tyler Marchant has seen to it that there are enough props to give Mabe things to do as well as say. Most notable are the boxes of typing paper he sits and jumps on. They also serve as symbols of the novel Will feels he will never finish and as echoes for his generally authorial way of looking at things (e.g., "I enjoy listening to books on tape when I drive--authors sautéing their words with sound until dusk rolls forth like an open vat of strawberry ice cream across my windshield"). However, as the colorful writing doesn't overcome his play's often trod thematic elements and overall dramatic insufficiencies, so the directorial static prevention measures never escape a sense of self-conscious stage business.
Ultimately, and despite Mr. Mabe's acting strengths and the director's and craft team's efforts to make Butterflies stageworthy, the central character is just another self-absorbed guy waxing poetically about who he's going to be when he grows up. The lyricism of the writing, which tends to keep us from relating strongly to Will, would probably work better in the format of a short story.
LINKS TO PLAYS BY STEPHEN BELBER & PLAYS PLUS / FEATURING MATTHEW MABE
the Laramie Project
Death of Frank
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.