Hippo Manchester
August 11, 2005

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Peterborough Players’ Solidarity is solid gold

New comedy a modern take on the American family and the rise and fall of one man’s character

By Michelle Saturley 

The Peterborough Players’ current production is the debut of the new Gus Kaikkonen play Solidarity. The show is a sardonic yet tender look at the distance between the generations of one American family. It opened Aug. 3 and runs through Aug. 14.

Kaikkonen said in his artistic statement that he wrote a majority of this play during a fellowship in which he stayed in writer James Thurber’s old house. Thurber’s ghost must have had an influence, because Kaikkonen has employed a similar biting wit, a nearly identical ability to describe the frustrations of the struggling man in a modern world. It’s the desire to make some sort of connection — any connection at all — that lies at the heart of Solidarity.

The play begins in the fabulous New York apartment of up-and-comer Ted O’Leary. Though Ted is the son of working-class parents from Scranton, he fancies himself as a Gordon Gekko-type business consultant, preying on companies that need to compete with overseas businesses by downsizing their employees and cooking their books.

On this particular evening, Ted is hosting a 50th anniversary party for his parents, Delta and Hoy, intent on showing off what a big shot he has become. The only family members in attendance are Ted’s charming but unhinged wife, Phyllis, his bratty daughter Hannah, his struggling actor brother, Frank, and Phyllis’s cousin Grover. Everyone else at the party is a politician or corporate bigwig. Ted’s elderly parents decide to camp out in the master bedroom, where coats are piled up and other family members make scattered appearances.

Through a comic succession of lightning-fast appearances in the bedroom, we learn the following: Cousin Grover loves to tell longwinded, meaningless stories; Ted’s father is disappointed in both of his sons’ lines of work; Phyllis is about to be committed, and Ted is a cheater in addition to his many other personality flaws. The scene ends with poor Hoy having a stroke, buried under a sea of coats.

Fast forward to four months later. After a business deal goes wrong, Ted has lost his business, his wife and his fortune. He has shacked up with his mistress in a trailer park in New Jersey. Ted has also moved his two children and his parents into the trailer — the “den of Hell,” as his mother calls it — while Hoy recovers from his stroke. It’s a far cry from Ted’s salad days living the high life in Manhattan, and to make matters worse, Ted’s new government job has sent him to the far reaches of Kazakhstan, while his parents linger on in the trailer, watching bad television and growing increasingly confused.

Cousin Grover, an Episcopalian minister, has somehow landed a county job as the most clueless social worker ever, and calls on Delta and Hoy by coincidence, on the very day that Frank, who is now a soap opera star, and Ted, on a much-needed break from his futile consulting work in eastern Europe, return home. Grover just happens to have Phyllis with him on a day pass from the “looney bin,” thus reuniting this fractured little family. After some mistaken identities, some harsh words and some truth-telling by all parties, the family finds its way back together — but not without some sarcastic remarks and a few tears.

This is the sort of play that could have easily regressed into sitcom-like stereotypes: the rich bastard, his depressed, pill-popping wife, his conservative, disapproving parents, his rebellious, smart-talking teen-aged daughter and his squeaky-clean younger brother. But Kaikkonen’s tart dialog and commitment to these slightly askew but totally believable characters keeps the material elevated to more of a modern-day Noel Coward satire. These people have been through the best and the worst of life and manage to pick up the pieces and keep going. Playwright Kaikkonen also directs the show, which can sometimes be a dangerous venture, but for this play, it works.

Standout performances include Matt Sarles as Ted, the flawed but still salvageable eldest son. Sarles is very comfortable on stage and brings the character from a snarling, unscrupulous big shot to a humbled, introspective family man. Kraig Swartz as Frank, Ted’s younger brother, exudes a warm likeability in his performance. He has a look and energy that would transfer well to film and TV roles. And Michael Page as Cousin Grover does some fine work as the show’s hapless straight man.

It is the play’s two senior stars who steal the show, however. Warren Hammack as Hoy, Ted’s father, and Carmen Decker as Delta, his mother, have the best one-liners, the best physical bits of comedy, and the most fun of all the show’s characters, and the audiences fell in love with them. Decker, in particular, has great comic timing and had the audience wrapped around her finger from her very first line.

Solidarity is a funny, moving satire that will give you plenty to think about after the show. It’s worth the drive west on Route 101 to take in these outstanding performances of a new play.