The Fifth of July is a hangover we enjoy.

High Times 

The Fifth of July is a hangover we enjoy.

Before I come out and call the Kansas City Actor's Theatre's treatment of Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July the best play I've seen this year, let me lay out what such a sweeping statement doesn't mean. This is not a perfect show, not the most powerful you'll ever see. It's not one that you'll recall thankfully from your deathbed, thinking that no matter what all you screwed up, at least you saw that.

Nah. This stubbornly untranscendent slice of life is merely the best play I've seen this year, which tells me two things. First, this is an excellent piece of work — expertly crafted, rich with character humor, glancing against big issues without ever making much fuss about it, a model play given model treatment. In almost every particular, this production (directed by Mark Robbins, who seems to have evolved into some higher being lacking any artifice) is crafted as well as the play itself.

The second thing is less pleasant, so I'll just out with it: There aren't enough good plays in this town.

Sure, we get good shows. We even get some thrilling theater — with the mad guidance of Barry Kyle of the Royal Shakespeare Company, last winter's UMKC production of The Maid's Tragedy, a thoroughly lousy Elizabethan drama, was sharpened through stagecraft into something so wickedly cutting that I still carry it around like a wound. It was a great show but a bad play, a Hollywood trick that too many theaters in town try to get away with too often, with disastrous results. Enduring the American Heartland's Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, a show loved only by the five people writer Mitch Albom will meet in heaven, I kept wondering, with real sadness: Why is this being staged? Why can't someone give this talented cast an honest-to-God play?

I wasn't craving Strindberg or Ionesco, the difficult or the audience-baiting. Just a play, with a story that engages, characters worth the actors' efforts, maybe an idea in its head and real feeling in its climax. But theaters seem to fear that real plays — that is, dramas like The Fifth of July, things that we haven't seen a hundred times, that aren't guaranteed to pull in a certain amount of revenue by midrun — smack of art and tedium and homework. That they won't get asses in seats.

As far as I can tell, they're right. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't get your patron-of-the-arts asses down to Union Station for this, the second in the Actor's Theater's summer-long run of Wilson's three Talley plays. It's a great play, in both the traditional sense and in the sense of the word itself: This is play. It's fun.

The show's a quick-blooded pleasure, always easy to take, funnier than most comedies and more moving than most tragedies but — like life itself — never settling down cleanly as either. It's bound up with the other two shows, though you need know nothing about them to enjoy it. (That said, the more you know, the richer the experience is.)

Set 30 years after Talley's Folly, Fifth of July follows the Talleys into the '70s. As their country's war staggers to an end, a quartet of thirtyish Talleys and their lovers feel around at life and its possibilities. But the idealism of the '60s has died, leaving in its place only that me-first hedonism that's one of the decade's most enduring contributions to the national character. In Talley's Folly, the characters looked to and prepared for a future alive with hope: The world, they knew, had to get better. That's gone here. Woozy with drugs, ground down by life, this bunch just floats about their Lebanon, Missouri, house like cigarette butts stubbed out in a beer can. They're the mess to be cleaned up after the party.

None of this is meant to make the play sound depressing. On the contrary, it's steadily funny, filled with the loose talk of stoned people and lifted by a blazing comic turn from Cathy Barnett as hung-over singer Gwen. (Scott Cordes, one of those Duck Hunters who deserved a better script, is also lively as Gwen's husband, an old friend of the family.)

The slight story concerns Ken (an understated Brian Paulette), a Vietnam hero whose legs never made it back. He's also the last male Talley and the often-absent owner of the house, which is kept up by his lover, Jed (the gifted David Graham Jones, demonstrating that he's even better on those rare occasions when he's not playing a nervous weasel), and his aunt Sally (Kathleen Warfel), the free spirit of Talley's Folly now all grown up. Warfel is magnificent, teetering between wisdom and battiness. She's especially moving in those moments when she collides with the past.

With a houseful of friends and relatives trooping about, Ken must decide whether to abandon the past or to soldier on. The machinations of Wilson's story are hardly the point, however. What connects so strongly here is the feeling of how easy it is to let the world change into something worse than you'd hoped ... and these characters' agony in choosing what, if anything, to do about it.

Gripping and honest, the play manages a feat too rarely even attempted in the theater these days. Concerned as it is with how past meets present, it tells us not only how the Talleys of the other shows became these Talleys. It tells us something urgent about who we are and how we got here.

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