It’s a subtext to many romantic comedies: One partner is a struggling artist or has a dream he or she wants to follow. The other is more concerned with paying the bills. This takes many different forms, in many different plays and movies, but … that kind of thing.
In Laura Ekstrand’s “Life’s Work” — a comedy/drama that Vivid Stage is currently presenting at the Oakes Center in Summit, in its world premiere — the subtext takes center stage. Ekstrand (who is also Vivid Stage’s artistic director) intertwines the stories of two couples who are having a hard time dealing with that kind of thing.
Directed in a straightforward, no-nonsense style (that fits the material perfectly) by Betsy True, “Life’s Work” builds on this theme in just about every scene. Ekstrand doesn’t bring in a lot of outside issues — there are no major romantic subplots, or wacky friends, or topical references — but explores her main one, and its ramifications, with impressive thoroughness. The result is an absorbing 90 minutes that, I assume, will ring very true for most attendees (given how prevalent “that kind of thing” seems to be in modern lives).
According to the program, the time is “The present. A Week in January,” and the place is “Northern New Jersey.”
We start with Chip (Scott McGowan), a middle-aged lawyer, having arrived at a Zen-like moment of clarity: His job has become unbearable — a kind of “slow, grinding death,” he says. And he’s going to quit. Immediately. “I’m done,” he announces.
This is not welcome news to his wife, Lynn (Nicole Callender). She postponed her own career dreams, in commercial interior design, to stay home while their daughter grew up. Now that their daughter is in college, she is just getting back to it. She and Chip had a kind of “deal” about this, she believes, and he’s breaking it.
As she says later in the play, “I thought that this was my time.”
Playing hooky from work — he postpones the actual quitting — Chip starts hanging out at a coffeeshop and striking up a friendship with the barista, Shelly (Emaline Williams). Chip is in a kind of limbo — he doesn’t know what the next stage of his life is going to be — and is drawn to Shelly’s fierce devotion to her art. She’s a photographer, just working at the coffeeshop for the health insurance and the money (in that order), and is preparing to have her first one-woman show, at a small Jersey City gallery.
Chip and Lynn attend the opening, where they meet Shelly’s boyfriend, Eduardo (Mitchell Leigh Gordon), whom Lynn actually knows already: He manages a chain restaurant and was tending bar in an earlier scene when Lynn stopped in for a drink. Lynn, while naturally suspicious of Chip’s interest in Shelly, finds herself quite moved by the photography.
Shelly and Eduardo, it turns out, have their own problems that mirror Chip and Lynn’s situation. Eduardo thinks Shelly’s artistic aspirations are misguided, that her photographic work is a “struggle with no reward”; she looks down on him for being content working an “ordinary” job.
Throughout the play, Ekstrand, True and the cast add a lot of little touches that don’t seem like a lot on the surface, but really add up.
The way Lynn grudgingly picks up after big-shot lawyer Chip, who has come to expect to be picked up after.
The way Shelly seems to transform herself into a totally different person when talking about her photography, and Eduardo does the same when talking about a good day at work.
The way Chip beams as he says, “I guess I’ll sit,” when he enters the coffeeshop for the first time after deciding to quit. He no longer has to just grab his coffee and go.
The way Lynn asks Eduardo, at the restaurant bar, “Is this what you do?” She’s clearly thinking that a guy as young and smart as Eduardo must be doing this only as a day job.
The way Chip relives a humiliating moment at work in excruciating detail.
While Ekstrand sticks to her topic, she constantly broadens it, bringing in not just the factors of money and freedom and security, but Eduardo’s relationship with his ailing mother and the class and racial differences of the couples (both are interracial), and showing how all this adds up to a complex, unique set of circumstances for each character.
It’s not just a matter of following a dream (as Shelly and Lynn do) or wanting to drop out while you figure out what’s next (like Chip) or just being happy going to work each day (like Eduardo). So much else plays into what each character wants, and does. And “Life’s Work” eloquently reminds us of this.
Remaining performances of “Life’s Work” take place April 28-30 at 8 p.m. and May 1 at 2 p.m. Visit vividstage.org.
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