Thursday, February 27, 2014

"The Trip Back Down" Stuck in Neutral by M.R. Hunter

Sometimes, you can’t go back. John Bishop’s 38-year-old drama about a down-on-his-luck stock car racer receives a thoughtful but frustrating revival at the Whitefire Theatre. Ironically, the main impetus of the formulaic storyline cruises down memory lane as Bobby Horvath (Nick Stabile) returns to his hometown of Mansfield after a near fatal accident on the track and perpetual failure.

Playing on Broadway for two months in 1977, “The Trip Back Down” probably had more muscle in its own time than it does now. It’s stout and unwieldy plot would benefit from a major overhaul by restoring the predictable drama from its clunky 2.5 hours to a lean, mean 90 minute machine. As it stands, the play putters along aided by the efforts of a strong ensemble pushing it forward.

Everyone in the cast hefts their own weight but it’s a shame to see such talent go wasted. There are infuriating productions where the play shows up but the actors do not, however, in this, it is the reverse which is maddening given the obvious labor of love from all the bells and whistles.

Flashbacks, shifting locales, brief segues and an occasional dreamlike quality are all difficult to manage in an intimate space but incorporating projections by Corwin Evans facilitates seamless transitions. It is as if the audience is viewing the unremarkable factory-hamlet from Horvath’s eyes, touching on the idea that it isn’t our childhood home that changes, but how we see it informed by our own maturity. Driven by a need for speed, ambition and fame, Stabile lends the disillusioned former champion an undercurrent of pensive stoicism in his discomfited return.

Director Terri Hanauer maintains a brisk pace even for all its plodding scenes that vacillates from tender revelations to inscrutable conflicts lacking resolve or significance. Uneasy clashes between Horvath and his immediate family, bar brawls and a dance sequence are achieved well to full effect but two-hander scenes tend to become static rather than increase rising tension.

The cast mightily extracts fine performances from canned dialogue and blue-collar stock characters. Minor roles like awe-struck Chuck and groupie Pam are given further development by Karl Ebergen’s sensitive portrayal and the gorgeous Lovlee Carroll’s hard-edged attitude. Meredith Thomas as the unsatisfied sister-in-law finds shades of anxiety tinged with regret. Horvath’s estranged father Will is genuinely nuanced with feeling by Larrs Jackson while Gregory G. Giles produces a rabid devotion in former brother-in-law John Meeghan. Eve Danzeisen is sweetly sympathetic in her role as loving but co-dependent wife Joann, while her daughter Jan infuses tentative longing by Lily Nicksay. Robb Derringer as Horvath’s wingman Super Joe Weller mines humor with the appropriate blend of machismo and bad boy swagger. Kevin Brief may not be the most appropriately cast actor in his role as affable brother Frank, but he shines with natural likeability and shores up every difference in his scenes with Stabile. 

The vehicle is Nick Stabile, or more aptly, the engine is and he does an admirable service to an otherwise wooden role. A little less self-consciousness and posturing would go a long way to give his performance additional grit and accessibility but overall he delivers and holds his own.

Sometimes you simply cannot go back whether it’s our childhood, our home or in the theater. Things change, times change, we change. Plays can require restoration in the same way a classic car does and when new life is breathed in them, they are then seen as very cherry.  

“The Trip Back Down”
Runs through March 29
Thurs, Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Whitefire Theatre
13500 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA  91423
Tickets: $25
PH: 323-960-7712

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