Failure: A Love Story
‘Failure’ an intelligent, exuberant success
|Victory Gardens Theater presents|
|Failure: A Love Story|
Review by Lauren Whalen
What constitutes failure? Do the standards of success come from family, society or within? For a quirky Chicago family during a very fateful year, the only real failure is fear. Thanks to Seth Bockley’s adventurous interpretation of Philip Dawkins’ fanciful script, Failure: A Love Story brings a cheerful perspective to life’s only certainty besides taxes – and an Our Town-esque testament to fleeting, precious time.
In 1928, all three Fail sisters will die – youngest to oldest, from blunt object to the head, disappearance and consumption, in that order. The sisters themselves (Baize Buzan, Emjoy Gavino and Mildred Marie Langford) cheerfully reveal this information in the first minute of the play, and proceed to enact the history of their parents’ (Guy Massey and Janet Ulrich Brooks) marriage, immigration and death by car accident. Meanwhile, adopted brother John N. (Michael Salinas) and suave stockbroker Mortimer Mortimer (Matt Fletcher) must pick up the pieces when, one by one, the Fail sisters’ time runs out.
Playwright Dawkins employs an unusual storytelling method: Failure’s characters narrate their lives and deaths, with the help of old-timey song, energetic movement and a vast array of props. This is a risky structure: in the hands of a less capable writer, the words can seem empty and the message twee. Not so in Failure. Though it took me about half an hour, I was then immersed in this exceedingly happy world where sad occurrences happened at breakneck speed. The play’s recurring theme of clocks – the Fail family owns and operates a successful clock business – provided a lovely metaphor, and because of the way it is presented, one never feels beat over the head with it. Dawkins’ subtle, moving way with words was sweetly present in 2011’s The Homosexuals (CTB’s review), and is further refined here. I found myself scribbling choice dialogue to remember later – I can’t fathom higher praise for writing than that.
Even with such a strong script, Failure cannot work without equally strong direction. Bockley’s deep reverence for the story shines through each small step and big moment. The director staged Failure with the utmost care, skillfully highlighting the facets of each specific relationship without ever resorting to schmaltz. He’s aided by a crack production team: Scott Davis’ set design incorporates worn brick walls, heavy furniture and ladders that are at once whimsical and utilitarian – suitable for the high-spirited yet utterly practical clockmaking family. Mac Vaughey’s lighting casts a sepia tone on each scene, and Emily Tarleton’s costumes recall the giddy glamour of the post-war, pre-Depression era. Charles Kim’s score adds wonderful undertones while planting the audience firmly in the setting. Stage manager Helen Lattyak deserves the highest praise: Failure is dependent on a never-ending series of meticulously placed props. With no intermission or blackouts, Lattyak is faced with a gargantuan challenge. As a result of her conscientious efforts, feathered hats, empty picture frames and megaphones appear as if by magic.
Just as surely as the production team, each Failure actor is perfectly cast, confidently guiding the audience through a complex story without a stumble. Though their parent characters die early, Brooks and Massey remain onstage in a variety of small, funny roles – Brooks’ stirring speaking voice is well-employed, and her portrayal of a pet snake hilarious. Mortimer Mortimer begins as a cocky Dudley Do-Right, but the character’s eventual grief is heartfelt thanks to Fletcher’s thoughtful choices. Buzan is all perky charm as baby of the family Nelly Fail, and Langford’s Gertrude Fail is bossy, suspicious and protective as only an oldest sister can be. (I’m one myself.) The two strongest performances, however, come from Salinas and Gavino. Resembling film actor Jason Schwartzman, Salinas brings a quiet intensity to John N. Fail, a foundling turned animal enthusiast who’s embraced by his adoptive family though he doesn’t quite fit. Everything about John N. is real – his shyness around humans, his love of creatures great and small, his nervousness mixed with grief when people start dying and his routine is interrupted. And Gavino is magnetic from beginning to end. Proud and determined in a smart old-fashioned bathing suit, her Jenny June Fail challenges everyone around her to embrace life – as she practices the Australian crawl on a desk chair.
Dawkins is no stranger to loss: in a program interview, he says he wrote Failure as a reaction to his loved ones’ recent deaths. As someone who lost a friend to suicide this past summer, I can empathize. Failure: A Love Story uses all the right elements – excellent source material, creative tech and able actors – to paint a near-flawless seriocomic portrait of life before, during and after death. “Just because something ends,” one character tells another, “doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great success.” Truer words have never been spoken. Let me call you sweetheart, Failure. I’m in love with you.
Failure: A Love Story continues through December 30th at at VG Biograph Theater(Richard Christiansen Theater), 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $35-$50, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Baize Buzan (Nelly Fail), Emjoy Gavino (Jenny June Fail), Mildred Marie Langford (Gertrude Fail), Michael Salinas (John N. Fail), Matt Fletcher (Mortimer Mortimer), Guy Massey (The Chorus), Janet Ulrich Brooks (The Chorus)
behind the scenes
Seth Bockley (director), Scott Davis (set design), Mac Vaughey (lighting), Emily Tarleton (costume designer), Charles Kim (sound designer), Will Bishop (asst. director), Helen Lattyak (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)