Huntington's "A Guide for the Homesick": What Happened?

Samuel H. Levine & McKinley Belcher III in "Guide for the Homesick"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It was a dark and stormy night. So begins A Guide for the Homesick, the current Huntington Theatre Company production, a new play by Huntington Playwrighting Fellow Ken Urban, a fast-paced (and frequently too much so) 75 minute intermission-less two-hander. It was commissioned by New York's Epic Theater Ensemble (which advocates for social justice) as a play about international aid workers.  Urban, via interviews with Doctors Without Borders, discovered what problems they encountered upon coming home and facing the reality of life's readjustments. In January 2011, a young aid worker, returning from a six-month stint in Uganda, visits a shabby hotel room in Amsterdam rented by a fellow American.  The two strangers seek redemption from their pasts and confess to one another their (shared) fear that they may have betrayed the very people who had needed them most, and how each is haunted by the people they met.  Their initially passionate encounter becomes an opportunity to deal with the truth for both Teddy (McKinley Belcher III, seen at Huntington in Smart People and Invisible Man) and Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine, in his Huntington debut). In the case of Teddy, he has a tendency to fall in love with the wrong person. In the case of Jeremy, he questions: "How did I get here?".  And both could rightly ask: "What Happened?".
So could the audience. While providing some of his familiar effective devices such as very natural overlapping of dialogue (an approach put to better use in the playwright's earlier work A Future Perfect  three years ago at SpeakEasy Stage Company), in this outing Urban seems to have overlooked the need for a blueprint of sorts for those encountering this play for the first time. We do learn that Teddy, from Roxbury, is visiting Amsterdam with his best friend Ed, about to be married, while Jeremy's recent personal history echoes the real-life hysteria that surrounded Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the long tradition of US medical intervention. We at first wonder “what happened” to Jeremy's friend Nicholas (also played by Belcher) and where Ed (also portrayed by Levine) is. In the play's non-linear form, we gradually begin to see what each man Teddy and Jeremy are running from. The room becomes a haven for each from his past; as the program notes explain, a “small sanctuary of a hotel room (and what is more haunted than that)...escape from chaos (that) offers the possibility of a different future.” They grapple with ethical issues, one's responsibilities, and the meaning of friendship; they aren't heroes or philanthropists, but basically selfish, or at least self-centered. The play here at least hints at the seeming dichotomy that people can do good while fulfilling their own need to be needed. There are some truths unearthed, such as when Teddy states that it's always “easier to believe that things will get better”, or the ranting of Ed about a “whale's frequency so high that no other whales can hear” (recognizing that no one understands his cry for help). Toward the end of the play, Teddy tells Jeremy: “it's not too late. To change. To face the truth.”

It's also not too late to rescue this work from its present hyperventilated state. As it winds up, with dizzying speed, it becomes more difficult to follow who's who in the present or past (despite the helpful but increasingly frenetic use of lighting by Russell H. Champa to delineate where we are and when). A major part of the problem was the fateful (and, alas, fatal) choice to have the two actors each play the roles of the other's antagonist, a decision that doesn't make it any easier for an audience to follow time and location changes at warp speed. Perhaps the author wanted to convey the similarities that could be found in each of these characters, but it makes for a confusing ride during which we don't learn enough about any of them while at the same time attempting to follow what actually does happen. The acting helps, as both players are intense and obviously committed to the piece, though the characters of Teddy and Nicholas are fleshed out more than that of Jeremy and Ed, giving Belcher more room to expand his roles than Levine's less defined ones.

Both Teddy and Jeremy are from from Boston, and this is no coincidental choice by the playwright, given the contradictory facts of the role of our Commonwealth in LGBT rights, and the interference in the politics of Uganda by certain far right religious Massachusetts bigots. The stark reality of anti-homosexual fervor has been portrayed in recent works as disparate as Witness Uganda and even The Book of Mormon. The creative team, as always with Huntington, is expertly involved, from the (appropriately tacky) Scenic Design by William Boles to the realistic Costume Design by Kara Harmon and ominous Sound Design and Original Music by Lindsay Jones, to the rapid-fire Direction by Colman Domingo.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida is quoted in the program notes: “To have a friend is to know that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. (This is) the mourning that we expect from the very beginning.” The playwright has hit upon a universal theme that surely merits attention, but here requires more clarification; as it stands it's a work in progress rather than fully satisfying theater.

This latest effort by Urban, testament to his developing career, is on view until November 4th at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. As a presentation of homophobic hysteria, in its current unfocused form, the play is a noble but only partially realized effort.

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