Entering the American Heartland Theatre lobby is a little like clubbing. Music plays, people line up for drinks from the full-service bar. By the time you're halfway up the escalator from the ticket window, you're ready for a party.
So are the guys onstage. In Beer for Breakfast, a new play directed by Paul Hough, three 50-something men are headed to a friend's lakeside cabin in the dead of winter for a dudes-only weekend.
The cabin turns out to be more model home than man cave, all white walls, wicker furniture and chrome appliances. TJ (Scott Cordes), who shows up first at the house with Mark (Sean Grennan, also the playwright), registers his disappointment by calling the place "Malibu Barbie's Dream House," in the first of many one-liners in this comedy.
The third friend, Richard (Martin English), is recovering from a stroke and has trouble speaking clearly. Grennan's script calls for Richard to slur his speech for comedic effect — yes, stroke jokes. (It's one way to cope with aging.)
Mark has spent more time with Richard and understands him when others can't. He acts as translator, speaking Richard's lines after Richard does. This eventually gets old, and Grennan must think so, too — his Mark finally gets off a joke to relieve the repetition fatigue.
The buddies all grew up together and reminisce a lot about their high school and college days in the 1970s. Richard's brush with mortality notwithstanding, the men are loath to talk about their feelings (or even utter the word). They'd rather share memories of being young enough to stomach beer for breakfast. They want to eat bad-for-you food, forget about Lipitor and watch a game — any game. But they're about to participate in one instead.
The getaway vacation house belongs to their buddy Adrian, whose wife, Jessie (Cathy Barnett), arrives unexpectedly. But why is she there? Where's Adrian? We don't find out for way too long.
Attired in an unattractive suit (think '80s-style corporate get-ups in Baby Boom), the despised Jessie puts a quick damper on the men's plans. Barnett is a talented actress, but her character here is a two-dimensional stereotype reminiscent of the humorless feminist, somewhat brought up-to-date — she shops at Whole Foods but announces Terms of Endearment as a favorite movie. All-night games ensue that pit her against the three men to prove which sex is the superior one. When the cabin clock hits 4 a.m., Mark complains that the contest has gone on too long and is getting a little crazy. Getting? I had the same thought — sooner.
There are many funny lines and situations, including a couple of effective bits, but the play relies too much on gags. It has to — the plot doesn't really add up. A scene involving a cold dip in an icy lake made me laugh to the point of tears, but it couldn't make up for the lack of a coherent narrative.
The good-sized crowd in the AHT space, on the snowy midweek evening I saw the play, didn't seem to share my reservations. Audience laughter rolled easily and loudly all night. Credit the actors, who make the most of Grennan's story. (Grennan also seemed at times to be noting which lines really hit.)
Cordes can be an intense actor, and a physical one. He parlays that energy into an enthusiastic characterization, and English makes a heartfelt and sympathetic stroke survivor, even though the humor sometimes feels misplaced. (Perhaps anticipating such sentiments, the program has a "Recognizing a Stroke" page.)
Ultimately, the humor, the performances and the audience's appreciation don't quite make up for a play that tastes OK but goes flat before the party is over.