Matt, the title character in Birthday Boy, is turning 40, a milestone that, as far as I could tell, every member of last Friday’s audience had long since left behind. The discrepancy made me think, and not for the first time, about the generational divide that continues to bedevil theaters, and live performance in general outside pop music.
The Berkshire Theatre Festival—now the Berkshire Theatre Group, embracing both the home campus in Stockbridge and Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre—is not the only company with a graying audience base. The artistic director of another Berkshire theater put it to me bluntly last summer: “Our audience is dying off.”
Area theaters keep testing strategies to lure younger audiences, including ticket deals and edgier second-stage offerings, and it’s likely this show is part of that effort. Birthday Boy, a world premiere by Williamstown playwright Chris Newbound, is the kind of play that’s intended to appeal to the audience demographic it’s about: white, middle-class 30-somethings. It’s a piece that floats on snappy banter but digs into heart-hurts and yields uncomfortable insights.
Melora, Matt’s new colleague in the play’s unspecified business, is on the brink of 30 as Matt turns 40. Both of them are in marriages that are not quite smooth sailing but still clear of the rocks. There’s a mutual attraction fueled by flirtatious chit-chat. On Matt’s birthday night they venture into perilous emotional waters and lead the audience into will-they-or-won’t-they anticipation. Meanwhile, Matt’s wife, Arianne, a college professor, is at home with the kids and sparring with an uninvited guest—one of her students, who recently stole a not-quite-unwilling kiss in the library stacks and is now obsessed with her.
The actors, all more or less age-appropriate, only occasionally try too hard to be effortless in delivering the playwright’s brand of wit, which leans heavily on joky sarcasm. James Ludwig, as Matt, has the mixed blessing of a resemblance to Rob Lowe, and there’s a similar boyish charm infusing this performance. Tara Franklin practically grew up at BTF, with more than a dozen credits here. Her Melora is cute and playful, the kind of person who mitigates a sardonic quip with a grin. Keira Naughton, also a Berkshire fixture and one of our region’s most versatile actors, struggles a bit to make Arianne both ironic and pissed. And Nick Dillenburg does what he can with the smitten-student role, more plot device than character.
Rather than leading to a more typical crisis and conclusion, the play ends on an ambiguous note, making it a study of temptation at a potential tipping point in two relationships. Which, thankfully, helps the piece transcend its witty but freighted repartee and sometimes clumsy plotting (Act One ends with an awkwardly contrived one-two surprise punch).
The production, directed by Wes Grantom, is part of Made in the Berkshires, a festival of work by local artists (see Fall Arts Preview in this issue). If the festival’s variety and Birthday Boy‘s subject matter can lower the median age of BTG’s constituency, that will be good news for theaters and theatergoers alike.”
Birthday Boy: Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 16, Unicorn Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, (413) 298-5576, berkshiretheatre.org.