For those who’ve dared attend one, a high school reunion is an occasion in which one’s past expectations and one’s present circumstances come head to head. For the characters in Stephen Belber’s absurd and often poignant new play, The Muscles in Our Toes, the effort to reconcile the two has a very real impact on their immediate futures when they gather in the chorus room (hyper-realistically designed by Lee Savage) of their high school for their 25th.
Inside this history-laden space, talk among four old friends turns quickly from the conversational pleasantries of work, kids, and marriage to the person conspicuously missing from it: their friend Jim, who, word has it, has been captured by a radical political group during a business trip in Chad. Reg (Amir Arison), a mild-mannered government employee, proposes a peace website to bring attention to Jim’s predicament, but the rest of the group, including Les (Bill Dawes), a fight choreographer who embodies a beguiling combination of macho jocularity and progressive sensitivity, Dante (Mather Zickel), an uptight banker and new convert to Judaism, and Phil (Matthew Maher), Dante’s flamboyant brother, have other plans. “If we wanna live more engaged lives we have to get up off our asses and do something,” Phil says.
Perhaps it’s the nostalgia evoked by the setting, or the alcohol, but the spirit of that youthful idealism catches on and as the group works itself into a fever pitch, a “big balls” idea emerges to affect the political situation in Chad by blowing up a file cabinet at a local F.B.I. office. The plan evolves from there into ever-weirder territory (it eventually involves Les’s choreographic skills and a lot of shirtlessness), but even as the situation becomes increasingly ridiculous, we never question the group’s sincerity or the serious ethical inquiry at the heart of the play—namely, when and how we should act to combat injustice in the world, especially at a time of life when the consequence of that action runs greater risks.
While the wisdom and logistics of their plot are front and center, affairs of the past are every bit as urgent—and interesting—as those of the present. As with any longstanding group of friends, there are skeletons in the closet (they may not be the only entities in the closet among this homoerotically charged bunch) and they are dragged out in due time. Those old grudges may lack the broader implications of an act of domestic terrorism, but even as the group discusses breaking the law and destroying government property, they seem to address the same internal conflicts. The personal and the political here are intertwined.
Belber’s strengths as a playwright are manifold, but his greatest talent may be his attention to detail: the small yet vastly important nuances in character and back stories—Les’s tendency to add “metaphorically” in conversation, for instance, or the incrementally revealed extent of Rej’s betrayal of Dante decades ago—that add up to a theatrical landscape that’s rich and brimming with intrigue. These aren’t just running gags that earn laughs; they’re paramount to the success of The Muscles in Our Toes.
Equally important is the ensemble, which does wonders in accentuating the energy and humor in Belber’s script. Bill Dawes brings a physicality to Les that looks effortless, but involves a series of brilliant and specific choices, from his posture to the minutiae of his body language. And Jeanine Serrales, as the brassy and desperate Carrie, who wanders into the room sporadically, nearly steals the show in one sprawling, frantic manifesto for the post-40 crowd: “I am an empowered woman of the 21st century—beaten-up but fucking capable of everything, of sticking my hand out and grabbing a handful of life and sticking it in my pocket and walking around and saying to myself, ’Yes—there is life here, inside of me, inside my left front pocket and I’m going to make something of that life—with that life.’”
Of course, a play that uses the un-ironic optimism of its characters as its central fuel runs the risk of seeming naïve itself. But Belber’s characters are so believable, his pace so precise, any perceived frivolity will likely be forgiven.
The Muscles in Our Toes runs at the Bank Street Theater through June 19.