It is not often that one sees great acting rescue a dire piece of writing, but that is exactly what I witnessed this evening when I watched “On An Average Day,” by John Kolvenbach. How this script has managed to make it on to the West End stage appears to have very little to do with its merits. Kolvenbach has had the great good fortune to have two well-known American actors star in his play and without this extra magical ingredient the show would definitely fail.
The list of American stars making their debut on the West End stage continues to grow. This time it is the turn of Woody Harrelson and Kyle Maclachlan. Harrelson found fame in the sitcom “Cheers” and later in the movie “Natural Born Killers”, whilst for Maclachlan it was in the TV series “Twin Peaks” and “Sex in the City”. The auditorium had a younger crowd then usual, obviously the fans had turned out to see their idols perform live on stage.
Woody Harrelson plays Robert, a man who has a child had been abandoned firstly by his father and then later by his brother, Jack. This abandonment has left Robert in a mentally unbalanced state and he spends his days cutting clippings out of newspapers about missing people and apparently doing little else. Then one day his brother Jack suddenly returns home after 23 years. The dialogue that ensures slowly begins to reveal the despair that both brothers still feel about their alienated relationship with their father. One is left wondering what happened to the mother of these two brothers as there is never any reference made to her!
The play is an obscure piece of writing. It does not initially attempt to explain in any real clarity the background of the two characters. I felt that I had been dropped into a forest of mystifying verbiage inhabited by two strange individuals who seemed unable to communicate with each other despite their many attempts.
The acting from Woody Harrelson is mesmerising. He plays the part of a mentally ill man trying to make sense of the world around him with disconcerting authenticity. His ability to express the fear and confusion that his character feels about his mental state adds essential warmth that would otherwise be missing.
Kyle Maclachlan’s character Jack depends upon the successful portrayal of the younger brother Robert. Fortunately, with Harrelson this portrayal is perfect and so Maclachlan is able to slowly dismantle the level-headed behaviour of his character, to reveal an equally damaged and scarred child still haunted by memories of his father.
This intimate play about two estranged brothers was definitely lost on the large Comedy Theatre stage. In a smaller space, such as the Donmar or the Cottesloe I wonder if I may have come away with a different view of the production. As it was, it is an indeterminate production of a poor script with superb acting, especially by Woody Harrelson.
Next review by Richard Mallette
It should be said at the outset, if only to evaluate what's good about this production, that had On An Average Day not attracted a lead actor with the visibility of Woody Harrelson, it would certainly not have been mounted in the West End. But because a film and television star in the magnetic person of Mr Harrelson graces John Kolvenbach's new play, it will probably draw an audience, indeed a quite youthful audience, and that seems to be what the London theatre needs more of. One can easily envision other, and quite creditable, productions in small theatres both here and in America, for this is an intimate play about domestic and private concerns. So a large old proscenium theatre may not the best contemporary venue for this stifling two-hander. The set designer, Scott Pask, has done his best to ameliorate the awkward bigness of the Comedy Theatre's stage by constructing a cramped kitchen within the larger proscenium space and surrounding this ugly room with vast piles of household rubbish to suggest the detritus of the characters' lives both past and present. The two hours of real time depicted in the action will uncover the emotional deformities that have led the brothers to this confrontation after many years' separation.
The older brother Jack, in a thankless part played with stoic sufferance by Kyle Mac Lachlan, has returned to the shambles of the family home to find his disturbed younger brother Bobby (Mr Harrelson) on trial for a violent crime. To disclose any more of the plot would spoil the gradual revelations, both about Bobby's predicament and the family past that may have led the brothers to this crisis. Why exactly Jack has come back will not be fully discovered until act two. Hence Mr Mac Lachlan’s character has almost to mark time by prompting his younger brother with questions intended by the playwright to highlight Bobby's more eccentric and comic sides, until Jack, too, finally gets his brief turn to strut and fret.
Meanwhile the play is mainly Mr Harrelson's, in a role to which he can bring the endearing bad-boy brio that has ensured his celebrity. In less self-confident hands the part could easily have devolved into rant, for Bobby personates that now time-honoured American hero, the misunderstood loner with nowhere to fit, nowhere to go, and all the world to rage at. In such cases The Journey West is usually the surest delivery, but Kolvenbach's characters cannot so readily escape their enclosures. In particular they cannot flee their father, the third and long-absent member of this seemingly all-male family. This is a play about fathers and sons. The brothers themselves recreate that bond anew, with the older Jack sometimes acting the part of a long-absent father. But the only frontier these two have to conquer is their unresolved family nightmare. That attempted conquest will of course bring violence, for this is an almost wilfully American story. Its progenitors in the national literature are multiple, the works of Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard being only the most prominent and proximate: again we witness the struggle of brother against brother, father against sons. But why these brothers share their names with two of the most famous brothers in American history seems obscure at best.
Violent madness looms not far off in Harrelson's performance. Yet he manages to control every muscle, every facial movement, every flash of his mischievous, nearly deranged blue eyes, just enough to keep the audience pleasingly anxious. His is certainly an accomplished acting feat, none the less so for meeting the demands of the stage with vocal clarity and vigour, as though he had been doing so for many recent years. We may be meant to understand over the course of the brothers' conversation why Bobby has become so damaged. The script, though, leaves that understanding opaque. Yet Harrelson manages, with voice and gesture, to give Bobby considerable emotional heft as well as a lot of charm. Director John Crowley has skilfully instructed the two brothers to circle one another menacingly, caged as they too-obviously are by that kitchen and the familial past it so graphically embodies. Mr Mac Lachlan does what he can with the straight-man's part. He seems at times generously to defer to Mr Harrelson, although he has little choice since the most irreverent lines and most histrionic moments are written for his upstaging partner. Mr Harrelson keeps the audience laughing at the lunacy and fascinated by the emotional wreckage, so that throughout it’s his performance, rather than the merits of this shop-worn script, that gives the production its zest.
What other critics had to say.....
JONATHAN MYERSON for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Undemanding, unsurprising and unmemorable." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "John Crowley's fleet production embraces the play's ambiguities, draws out its sly humour and deftly sidesteps its potential for mawkishness." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " There’s some good, zigzag, funny-crazy writing..." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The questions are endlessly unanswered in John Crowley's unilluminating production" CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Fresh, funny and far from average."
External links to full reviews from newspapers