Curtain Calls

Review: 'One Hundred Twinkling Lights'
The devil is in the details: Intriguing new play at Blackbird Theatre lacks clarity, suffers from clutter

Playwrights get their inspiration from a wide variety of sources. For Barton Bund it was an anonymous letter left a decade ago on actor/director Jim Posante's doorstep.
The letter writer seemed to be a local derelict, but the often-rambling note showed signs of intelligence and education. Its purpose was to thank Posante for his outdoor Christmas light display which the author found inspiring. Its beauty, in fact, may have given the homeless man a reason to stay alive one more night on the streets of Ann Arbor.
From that heartfelt note sprang "One Hundred Twinkling Lights," a collaborative effort by Bund, Posante and director William Myers that had its world premiere performance last week by Bund's BlackBag Productions at Ann Arbor's Blackbird Theatre.
The result is somewhat like its inspiration: unfocused, somewhat muddled and often very confusing, yet teeming with possibilities.
In his Author's Notes in the program, Bund states that "One Hundred Twinkling Lights" is a sequel to an earlier play, "The Jealous Type," that featured two brothers, Vic and Tony, struggling with addiction. Apparently neither learned much in that story, as both are still fighting that demon in this latest work.
With "One Hundred Twinkling Lights" Bund has added yet another devil to the mix: Vic's relationship with his father. It's quite apparent from the start that Vic's childhood was the polar opposite of Beaver Cleaver's. Yet despite the anger he feels toward his biker-dad, Vic also accepts the responsibility to take care of him as senility (or dementia?) sets in.
Dad's death comes quickly. But just as quickly – and unexpectedly – another fatherly figure enters his life.
While out on his porch one night smoking a cigarette, Vic is approached by a local street person who asks to borrow a smoke. Vic – being the nice guy that he is – refuses. The vagrant takes it in stride, posing a simple question for Vic to ponder: "What's the greatest ship that sailed the seas?" The answer is "friendship," of course.
Despite the brush-off, the street person has been moved by Vic's elaborate Christmas light display, so he secretly leaves a rambling note on Vic's porch. When it's discovered, Vic interprets it to mean that maybe – just maybe – his Christmas lights helped save the derelict from committing suicide. Deeply touched by the letter, Vic now wants to do something else for the derelict.
So he locates the man, invites him to his home and offers him the keys to his father's now-empty house. The gesture is refused, but the two – both lovers of pills and booze – hit it off, and before you know it, Vic has a roommate. Eventually, Vic volunteers to take care of the ailing man – who was once a professor of music at the local university – which includes settling the professor's three dying wishes.
What could have been a very engaging story of loss, regret, forgiveness and personal redemption was quickly sidetracked by a script that on one hand skips too many important details, yet overloads the audience with many unnecessary others.
And certain plot elements seem contrived simply to set up a "moment" later in the story.
It's minimalist storytelling that simply gets bogged down in the details.
For starters, the death of Vic's dad in the second scene comes without warning. Sure, he couldn't remember much of his past and he moved slowly, but his death between the first and second scenes – it's only talked about, not seen – comes without any foreshadowing. It simply seems contrived to get the story moving.
Then there's the problem with the note: How did Vic know who left it? It was anonymous, yet not only did Vic somehow know how and where to locate its author, he even convinced the stranger to come back to the house with him – all of which occurred off-stage, in-between scenes. That's asking an audience – ANY audience – to suspend far too much disbelief.
Also early in the script there's a reference that Vic's house is haunted; voices, we are told, can be heard from behind a specific wall panel. We never hear them; it's never talked about again. It simply serves to set up what is supposed to be a breakthrough, yet ghost-less, moment at show's end. Its impact doesn't quite live up to the playwright's expectation.
But what also creates much of the show's confusion is having Bund and Posante play multiple characters throughout the show. And that, regular readers of this column know, is one of this critic's pet-peeves; few actors display the skills needed to successfully pull off such a feat.
Initially, Posante creates two totally distinct characterizations for the dad and the professor. They blur, however, as the play progresses, leaving the audience to wonder which character is entering a scene, or worse, is this someone we haven't met before?
Bund's transformation into Stephen – the professor's much younger lover while at the university – isn't obvious, either, except for a single, quiet hand gesture that could easily be missed by a large chunk of the audience.
Finally – at least as far as this review is concerned – there's simply far too much tragedy heaped on these two characters for any 90-minute play to bear. Each has an intriguing back-story that requires a series of full-length plays to explore; here, it only ill-serves Bard's drama. Add to that all of the extraneous baggage that comes with them – namely, many of the other characters who pop in and out – and the result is a promising story that simply gets lost along the way.
And that's a shame, since the play also contains many nuggets of "twinkling lights."
For despite its flaws, Bund fills his play with incredible insights about the human condition. And Bund and Posante each have powerful and poignant moments on stage.
Ultimately, however, "One Hundred Twinkling Lights" sparkles with only half its wattage.
"One Hundred Twinkling Lights" Staged Thursday through Saturday by BlackBag Productions at the Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor, through March 5. Tickets: $17. 734-332-3848.
The Bottom Line: An original script with an intriguing concept that tries way too hard to make its point, and as a result, misses its mark.