‘Fifty Ways’: A promising play full of hurt, more hurt and hope

Nina’s husband, Adam (Michael Gaston), sits on the bathroom floor with Nina’s common-law step-sister Zoe (Leah Anderson). Photo by Eric Shea.

Nina fights waking up after ingesting two sleeping pills as Zoe tries to help wake her and figure out just how many sleeping pills Nina decided to take. Photo by Eric Shea

Nina (Vivienne Benesch) gives her son, Grant (Josh Tobin), a haircut after he returns home from camp and uses the opportunity to have a serious discussion.
Photo by Eric Shea.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

Fifty Ways, the new play by Kate Fodor showing in premiere with the Chautauqua Theater Company, might become music in time. Its promise is atonal. Right now, it plays too pleasantly.

Fifty Ways begins with great assurance, dropping several F-bombs by the end of Page 3 and keeping up that verbal damage for the duration.

As well, the protagonist quickly and convincingly vomits three times, his wife having just concluded a declamation with an odd synesthesia about the different barks her house emanates, which is her way of complaining about the things that don’t work around the place. Those things that don’t work bark at her.

One gets the idea that affairs are not all that they should be in this setting. And once on the trajectory, difficulties — not to mention absurdities — might very well continue apace. They don’t. At least not right away.

The play takes a leisurely amble around hard times, creatively dropping metaphors here, creating symbols there, being clever in the way New Yorkers are wont to do, and taking offense with each other at the drop of a simile. Communications are a real problem. Folks who should speak truth to one another do not and instead rattle on to those they shouldn’t.

Nina and her husband, Adam, are starved for respect, never mind love. A little respect would do fine for starters. If only they could make connection, and heaven knows, there are ample signs of this need: frequent talk of zippers, and doleful looks out of the window that doesn’t work, and plenty of worries about the roof — that great protective, comforting, Freudian roof — which at the moment is in bad repair.

Ph.D. Nina, academically stingy with her approvals, like any self-respecting scholar would be, and Adam, sufficiently insecure as to write a book titled Novelty: A Novel, are in their weekend home in Woodstock. Like their marriage, the place is falling down.

Nina’s common-law stepsister, a musician rehearsing atonal music, is visiting because she has no other place to go, and their son, the golden boy of the marriage, has returned from summer camp and would just as soon leave.

Of course Adam is ill, potentially and appropriately with a life-threatening cancer. How they deal with the cancer among them constitutes the relatively quiet song of the first act.

One might have hoped for more bite after such a foul-mouthed start. But it turns out that language is clever, even funny. Issues remain within reach. Life is coming into its own, and troubles loom, but Nina has cleaned up Adam’s vomit and the roof has not fallen.

Is the drama going to continue so politely? Must we only dance with popular culture, with Paul Simon and his tuneful “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”? Composer Lindsay Jones’ piano also provides the sound design — an easy John Lewis-style piano. But there is more to it than entr’acte beguiling jazz.

In these next days, as Fifty Ways develops a tempo for its exposition — the more the cast and their design plays into a score, not only a script — the more powerful will become the eruption of the second act, when the consequences of dysfunction have their way.

That is the fulcrum, and the resolution depends upon it.

Nina looks for love but can’t receive it. Adam looks for love in the wrong places. Zoe, the sister, is wronged. The son becomes father of the family, his mother reaching to him in one piquant scene but without touching.

A tangible fear, aptly, had been cancer. The illness that results attacks communication. But not without hope.

The home is repaired, and the son provides the lift that allows the drama to end. No one is left unscarred, except the son, who becomes the caregiver — and what could be called the moral of the story.

Fifty Ways is fine work that hurts and hurts, and then finds enough hope to continue. Fifty Ways is a good play, but still rehearsing its metaphoric music. Its score will come when it becomes even more atonal.

The play has every promise, and promise is a big word in drama. Ethan McSweeny directs with understated, subtle staging. Plenty of big moments in the playwright’s words are played softly, underneath the lines, where meanings can be shared with an audience.

McSweeny’s skilled actors, so wounded, so yearning, are still standup people — Vivienne Benesch as Nina, Michael Gaston as Adam, Leah Anderson as Zoe, Josh Tobin as the son, and David Aaron Baker, as a carpenter who comes on briefly to fix the house.

Paul Simon sang about 50 ways to leave your lover. That is part of it. The more important part Fodor’s play addresses is the 50 ways out there to find love.

The play is commissioned by Chautauqua Theater Company and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center.

Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a multi-arts venue at Buffalo State College. He was a critic fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Foundation and the theater critic at The Buffalo News. He also served as director of George Eastman House and the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.