Marital & Existential Crises

Hal & Bee
Written by Max Baker
Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by Stable Cable Lab Co. and New Light Theater Project at 59E59, NYC
March 10-31, 2018

Hal (Jeff Hayenga), one half of the titular couple in Max Baker's unsurprisingly excellent new play Hal & Bee, is introduced flipping through cable channels while he vapes weed. Hal's wife, Bee (Candy Buckley), who has a museum job and a healthy taste for Four Roses bourbon, sees this sort of sedentary consumption (which, she notes, they pay for) as having turned their lives into "Sartre by the hour." The complacency that she criticizes, however, is disrupted by a notice that the Upper West-Side building that houses their rent-controlled apartment has been sold and they are being offered a buyout. Hal and Bee's disagreement over how to deal with this development becomes both the entry point into and flash point for other, deeper, longer-standing rifts and anxieties in their marriage and their lives. Lest this sound dire, we remind you that this is a Max Baker play: it's savagely funny as well as intellectually rich.

Hal and Bee are post-middle-aged veterans of the counterculture. Hal is a once-lauded anti-capitalist author who now can't get published and spends his days shut in their apartment smoking pot, blogging, and playing real-time strategy games on the PC. The vivacious Bee spends her own days outside the apartment at a job that she likens to a prison sentence and heads more or less straight for the liquor cabinet when she gets gets home. This monotonous cycle is partly broken up by visits from their daughter and Hal's weed dealer, Moon (Lisa Jill Anderson), an MA student in developmental psychology. Moon is trying to figure out herself, her future, and her relationship with her first potentially serious boyfriend, providing a "before" image of parents who have reached the point at which life threatens to remain an endless, deadening repetition the dullness of which must be further dulled through addiction and avoidance. As Moon angrily points out, Hal too swore that he would never end up like his own parents, and Bee wishes that she had been alone for longer before joining her life to Hal's. Aside from these daily and intergenerational repetitions, there is an evolving pattern of repeated fantasies that attempt to offer a counterweight to the protagonists' frustrations. The Aristotelian quotation "You are what you repeatedly do" that Hal locates, inspired by a conversation with the Russian exterminator (Ian Poake) who comes to spray the apartment, could serve as a partial thesis for the play and its conflicts.

Hal remains committed to his ideals, maintaining that everything is about politics and connecting, for example, gentrification to the military-industrial complex. He argues that he merely takes a big-picture perspective, which Bee responds renders all their lives meaningless. She wants to deal with some things at a personal level, as about just them as individuals, and she especially worries that that time is passing quickly and that they aren't active, aren't alive in the way that they once were (especially before they had Moon). Bee is thus ready to leave the city (which Hal views as selling out), to break the cycle and begin a new phase and even (gasp) buy property. The question is whether either or both of them can or will follow through on this escape.

In a subtle visual echo of Hal and Bee's feelings of entrapment, the ceiling of the apartment set ends the play visibly lower than it began. The set as a whole boasts lots of great, lived-in detail, as does Hal and Bee's relationship. Baker has a gift for dynamic, rich, rhythmic dialogue, and the cast more than does it justice. Buckley is marvelous and packs every line with personality. Hayenga's performance is equally terrific, nuanced and recognizable. Both he and Buckley are extremely funny, as is Poake's deadpan Russian doling out of bits of philosophy and nature trivia; and Anderson's Millennial Moon, refusing to be drawn into her parents' disagreements and self-aware even as she feels as though she is floundering, may have more insight than her parents when she says that "we're all shitting our way through life" but we just have to roll with it.

As examinations of marital and existential crises go, Hal & Bee is funny, surprising, and ultimately moving, with its absurdist elements firmly rooted in astute emotional and psychological insight -- a bit like if Vladimir and Estragon were a realistic married couple. Contemplating the oppressive encroachments of aging and the social order, and recognizing shades of one's own reality, has rarely been this much fun. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler

Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy. When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.