A trio of onetime high school best friends reunite for the first time since grad night twenty-five years before in Gregory S Moss’s edgy comedy-turned-gut-punching drama Reunion, the latest World Premiere from South Coast Repertory.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Onetime best buds Peter (Kevin Berntson) and Max (Michael Gladis) have already begun their trip down memory lane in a rundown suburban Boston motel room as they await the arrival of Mitch (Tim Cummings), who has insisted that they meet in this room specifically, the same one in which the threesome celebrated their high school grad night only to go their separate ways over the intervening quarter century.

Eternally boyish Peter could not be happier to see his one-time best pal again, particularly since his efforts to stay in touch over the past twenty-five years have come to naught. Now, at last, he can catch Max up on his marriage to Judy, on his six-year-old twins and newborn daughter, and on the results of the fitness regimen Judy has gotten him to adhere to. (“Feel my stomach. Ooh, not there. Up here. This part. Feel it!” “Firm.” “Yeah!”)

Max seems to be neither in as tip-top physical shape as his former chum, nor nearly as excited as Peter is to be reunited with his high school bestie. As the duo await Mitch’s arrival, the latter catches his onetime buddy up on the third angle of their high school isosceles.

Mitch is, it seems, still living at home with his now widowed mother, though Max’s comment that Mitch “didn’t wanna be around when his dad got home” hints that their father-son relationship may have been prickly during those high school years.

A run-in between the now adult Mitch and their onetime high school coach earlier that evening at the official reunion suggests that things may not have changed all that much with the volatile Mitch in the years since graduation. Add to that Mitch’s explosive, even violent reaction to Peter’s attempt to “surprise” his former best friend by jumping out from under the covers upon the latter’s arrival at their rented motel room and there is reason to believe that things may indeed not be all that “right” with the still live-at-home, still single Mitch.

It seems at first that Peter’s hopes for the three former besties to spend the rest of the night drinking and reminiscing will come to naught. Not only does Max appear inclined to skip off posthaste to catch an early flight home, Peter and Max discover that he has at some time over the years since high school given up drinking, and it takes all Peter and Max have to persuade him to a) stay and b) go off the wagon for the night.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? It doesn’t take long thereafter for threesome to begin downing shot after shot, and as the whisky starts taking effect, playwright Moss’s edgy, edge-of-your seat two-acter takes off, particularly in the play’s increasingly booze-and-hard-rock-infused second act.

That being said, there may come a time, as there did for this reviewer, when at least some in the audience will start to find Peter, Max, and Mitch’s booze-and-pot-filled hi-jinx rather too much to take, particularly when Mitch’s words and actions take a decidedly cruel turn where Peter is concerned. You might, at some juncture, find yourself as frustrated as I began to feel with a Reunion that seemed to have no point to make, no reason to exist other than to turn a spotlight on men behaving badly.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Fortunately, there is indeed method in playwright Moss and his wild-and-crazy trio’s madness, revealed in a humdinger of an eleventh-hour twist that not only makes the lead-in worth an audience’s while, it makes Reunion a gut-puncher of World Premiere you’ll be talking and thinking about long after the lights have come back up. You might even want to pay Reunion a return visit if only to watch for the clues and hints Moss parses out ever so skillfully along the way.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? For a play as testosterone-fueled as Reunion, it may come as a surprise that its director, Adrienne Campbell-Holt, is a woman, but she more than niftily captains the ship, keeping the tension electric throughout and inspiring rich, complex performances from her stellar, L.A.-based ensemble. (Top marks again to casting director Joanne DeNaut, CSA, and thanks once again to South Coast Rep for having the good sense to cast locally.)

You won’t find three better performances than those rendered by Reunion’s trio of stars.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Berntson’s enduringly optimistic, eternally boyish Peter may get the lion’s share of the laughs early on (and there’s a bit of Act Two physical comedy involving duct tape that is a particular gem), but his work is as richly layered and nuanced as that of his two co-stars, who get the lion’s share of Reunion’s more dramatic elements.

Gladis makes for a particularly powerful Max, whose inner demons fuel some of Reunion’s most memorable moments, and never more so than in a devastating reveal of why the onetime heavy drinker opted to go on the wagon.

Last but most definitely not least is the phenomenal Cummings, straight off his LADCC Best Lead Actor victory for a night-and-day different, but equally unforgettable dramatic turn in the Fountain Theatre’s The Normal Heart. Mitch’s uber-machismo reveals Cummings’ gifts for vanishing into another man’s skin, and whether recalling an R-rated encounter with a more-than-willing female former classmate earlier in the the evening, or mercilessly twisting the figurative knife into one of his former best friends’ guts, or revealing twenty-five years of anger and hurt in the play’s harrowing climactic scene, this is yet another superb piece of work from one of L.A.’s most talented and versatile actors.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s rundown motel room may be the antithesis of the “wish I could move right in” sets that provoke oohs and aahs at South Coast Rep, but it is no less superbly rendered for being worn and weathered. Elizabeth Harper’s dramatic lighting ups the emotional ante again and again as does sound designer M.L. Dogg’s hardrock soundtrack. Edgar Landa’s fight choreography is once again as real as it gets. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz gives each actor a single costume to wear, but each is spot-on.

Kelly L. Miller is dramaturg, Joshua Marchesi production manager, and Kathryn Davies stage manager.

Sensitive audience members should be forewarned. Reunion merits an R rating for language and violence, though none of this is gratuitous. In fact, there’s not an unwarranted moment in all of Reunion. And trust me, you will be able to hear a pin drop during its final, devastating minutes.

Audiences in search of edgy, challenging drama will not want to miss this latest smash from Southern California’s finest regional theater.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through March 30. Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:45, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:45. No evening performance on Sunday March 30. Reservations: (714) 708-5552

–Steven Stanley
March 19, 2014
Photos: Ben Horak/SCR, Debora Robinson/SCR

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