A Stage We’re Drinking Through

13 Mar

FAULT LINES by Horse Head Theatre: A Review 

By JOHN DeMERS

Based on one experience, going to the theater inside a bar isn’t the worst idea anybody ever had.

Horse Head, which emerged last year as a force to shake things up on the Houston theater scene, delivers on its promise (or threat, if you prefer) by offering us a play set in a bar that, wonder of wonders, is actually performed in a bar. By way of explanation, downtown’s Brewery Tap more or less becomes a private club for the no-intermission duration of Fault Lines by Stephen Belber – so all except a few stubborn regulars are people who paid $20 for a “theater ticket.” Still, there is considerable cross-pollination between these two worlds, with audience members standing up to order beers and filling up on the popcorn and pretzels set out. That’s if they haven’t already bought a chili dog from the vendor Horse Head invited to set up just outside the door.

The experience is a bit unnerving, overall, not unlike those times in life when arguments or even physical fights break out and someone invariably laments, “I can’t believe this is happening.” The action in Fault Lines not only is happening, but it resembles just enough those things we’ve seen happen that the reality level is high. There’s music before the play by a band called Plump, which also supplies an exotic soundtrack throughout the action – one more way Horse Head and director Kevin Holden erase the lines separating before, during and after.

The plot of Fault Lines concerns two old friends facing what they struggle to consider middle age, their late 30s, through Bill actually seems a great deal “older” than Jim. Bill has a wife, a stable career and the desire to have children, while Jim is traipsing through some crazy environmentalist pursuit whose main products are biodegradable toilets and one-night stands with idealistic 20-year-old women, at least one of whom may or may not have recently killed herself. In so many ways, the friends are facing the realistically portrayed challenges of growing older, with a ridiculous amount of talk about their prostates. Yet in a manner worthy of Edward Albee, all seems increasingly not well in their friendship behind the good-natured façade of beer and tequila shots.

Drake Simpson and Rick Silverman are exemplary as Bill and Jim – real, funny, 100% comfortable in their own shoes. If anything, Philip Lehl is even better as the play’s “mysterious stranger,” an obnoxious guy named Joe who turns up, barges into the conversation and ends up serving as catalyst for the greatest challenge (other than day-to-day living) this 19-year friendship has faced. Ivy Castle-Rush is convincing as Bill’s late-arriving wife Jess, especially as she realizes she’s the epicenter of a sudden earthquake rippling out from a long-ago kiss she shared with Jim.

Starting with the play’s title, Belber makes much of his ongoing geological imagery. The earth is indeed shifting under these two men’s feet, breaking open chasms between them and perhaps even between husband and wife. Fault Lines wrestles with some very real human problems, some very recognizable life experiences. And it does so with considerable humor, more than a little sensitivity and copious amounts of alcohol. In this, Horse Head Theatre’s sophomore outing, Holden draws from his players some of the most natural ensemble work we’ve seen in quite some time.

And, yes, you can get your own beer and tequila shots while you watch. This being Houston, though, it’s best if you leave the cigarette smoking to the folks onstage.        

Performances at 8 p.m. Monday March 15, plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through March 27. www.horseheadtheatre.org.

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