The last time there was a 20th high school reunion at the El Portal Forum Theatre, the returning grads were a quartet of 60s-hits-singing housewives who called themselves The Marvelous Wonderettes.  In Stephen Belber’s just opened The Muscles In Our Toes, the returnees are four male buddies and the music providing a soundtrack to their reunion is performed by Culture Club, Eurythmics, and other 1980s icons. Whereas The Marvelous Wonderettes was light and fluffy fun, The Muscles In Our Toes makes for far darker fare, at times shocking, but often hilarious in its own edgy way.

Les (Daniel Milder) works as a fight choreographer for theater and films, but (as he likes to remind anyone who makes fun of him for being a theater geek) he does much more work in films these days.

Reg (Michael Benyaer) is a Persian/Afghan-American who works for the government and can’t quite seem to convince his former high school buddies that Persian and Afghan aren’t the same as Arab (as in terrorist).

Dante (Al Espinosa) is the group’s firebrand, an Italian American who’s converted to Judaism, and who even twenty years later holds a grudge against Reg. (It seems that Reg fucked Dante’s girlfriend without a condom in their senior year. Not only that but it turns out that he “explored the back roads with her.”)

Phil (Bill Tangradi) is Dante’s younger brother, an educational consultant whose own 20th reunion won’t be for another two years, but who’s accompanied Dante in order to hang with the old crowd. He greets Reg with a kiss on the cheek, a gesture soon explained by the fact that Phil’s gone gay since high school … and a later revelation that he and Reg fooled around once in college.

Joining the foursome for a while is pert, petite Carrie (Kristen Lee Kelly), who pops in as drunk as a skunk and amazed to find Phil there.  (For her, he’ll always be a 10th grader.)  She’s also more than a bit happy that he tagged along.  All the senior girls wanted to deflower the then virgin, though upon learning that Phil is gay, she’s fine with that too.

Absent from the group is Jim, the Class King of 1988, who’s reportedly being held hostage in Chad, where Jim’s sneaker company exploits teen laborers for a mere 60¢ an hour. Not coincidentally, Jim’s capture took place soon after the U.S. arrested an alleged Chadian terrorist living in California.  The Chadians now want the U.S. to exchange Jim for their imprisoned compatriot.

Even though CNN has done a piece on Jim’s case, the State Department doesn’t seem to give a hoot about his fate, so (over the course of countless G&T’s and a fair number of joints), Les suggests they do something on Jim’s behalf, “something with balls, big balls, to radically alter people’s field of vision.”

Reg suggests shooting paintballs at the FBI, but Dante has a better idea—”Bomb’em, and then send them a message of goodwill.”  When Les protests the idea of a bomb, Dante insists that “People would respect us for acting on our fucking principles.” How about bombing the local office of the FBI in the town where they all grew up, or better still, just a file cabinet containing details about the U.S.’s discriminatory detention policies?  “It’s simple,” explains Dante. “Blow to smithereens some little fucking file cabinet.”

And then, just as the foursome are debating Dante’s plan, who should show up but Jim (Keith Ewell) himself!

What happens next won’t be revealed here.  Suffice it to say that the play’s 90 minutes are still only about half over leaving much more booze to be drunk, more pot to be smoked, and an even more outrageous plan to be concocted.

Playwright Belber is best known for his 1999 one-act, Tape, which became a film starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman.  He also wrote and directed the recent Jennifer Aniston-Steve Zahn comedy, Management.  The Muscles In Our Toes has an indie film feel about it, though its one set, 90-minute real time format makes it a perfect fit for the stage.

Belber’s dialog is clever and original, his characters well-drawn. Les is proud of his 14-year-old who came home drunk with the smell of guess what on his fingers. “You gotta spy on your kids to maintain the upper hand,” he explains.  When Dante makes a terrorist crack about Reg and Reg replies “I’m Persian, Dante,” Dante rejoins with “So’s my rug.”  Phil insists that the arrested Chadian can’t be a terrorist because he’s gay.  Phil knows he’s gay because he knows a guy who blew him.  A gay guy.  Dante refuses to buy that. After all, lots of straight guys love to get blown by other guys and aren’t gay, e.g. Lance Armstrong, after a stationary bike workout. As for Phil’s own sexuality, well, “I’m a complex gay man,” he informs the others.  Les expresses reservations about joining his friends in their plan to bomb the FBI file cabinet. “I’m in theater,” he explains, “and theater people aren’t violent.”  (Les appears to have momentarily forgotten that he does much more work in films these days.)

Under Jennifer Chambers’ snappy direction, The Muscles In Our Toes features six cracklingly good performances, from Milder’s mild-mannered fight-choreographing theater geek to Benyaer’s complex portrayal of a non-stereotypical Persian/Afghan American, Esponosa’s dynamic, sexy hothead, Kelly’s sweetly inebriated divorcee, Ewell’s livewire of a sneaker exec, and Tangradi’s engaging portrayal of a contemporary gay man. (It’s great to see four mostly 100% heteros so completely accepting of a homo in their midst, though truth be told, I had a hard time buying the otherwise excellent Tangradi as gay.)

Donna Marquet’s nicely detailed set places the wrap-around El Portal audience smack dab in the middle of a high school choir practice room, with its music stands, upright piano, ballet barre and mirror, American flag, violin case, drums, photos of classical composers, and flyer for the official Band Carwash.  Brandon Baruch’s lighting design gives the impression that the stage is being lit by the fluorescent bulbs suspended from above, characters switching them on and off as they enter or exit. John Zalewski’s sound design is a veritable Best Of The Eighties medley, the volume upped whenever the choir room door is opened to the reunion outside. Jamie Hebert’s costumes are just the choices these people would have made for their 20th reunion, with Jim’s canary yellow sneakers a fashion highlight. Stage combat (yes, there is combat on stage) has been realistically choreographed by Stephan Wolfert.

Some negative comments made on GoldStar by audience members attending previews had made me wonder if The Muscles In Our Toes would be my cup of tea. I needn’t have been concerned. Belber’s writing may be a bit “out there” for those whose idea of comedy hasn’t progressed far beyond Barefoot In The Park.  I, on the other hand, had a great time, enjoying every outrageous twist and turn (though I’m not sure I’d care to have any of these guys as friends).

The El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., NorthHollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 30, 2009
                                                             Photos: Lee McLaughlin

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