SALT LAKE CITY — One of the biggest changes a man will go through in his adult life is the change that occurs when their first child is born. Fears and uncertainty abound. Playwright Sean Christopher Lewis addresses this in his new play Manning Up now showing at Salt Lake Acting Company in a delightful new production. This is part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere: a shared world premier by three regional theater companies. This rolling world premiere is being shared with the Riverside Theater in Iowa and Actor’s Summit in Ohio.
Manning Up presents a conversation between two men whose wives are both pregnant at the same time (and for the first time). Donnie is a professor of fourteenth century literature who carries a stop watch to time contractions, and Raymond is an actor who accepts a film job for a training video as a way of getting free therapy. They both have their hang-ups, obsessions, and fears about what becoming a father will do to them, their lives, and their masculinity. The action takes place over one evening in the man-cave in Raymond’s home. Donnie is a nervous worrier that tends to cry at the more emotional aspects of pregnancy, and Raymond tends to put up a more macho front that hides his deeper fears.
Lewis uses broad stereotypes to create these characters. His program note states that the characters are based on real people he knows and that the situations they spoke to him about inspired the play. On the surface, I doubt why these two characters would be friends. Raymond is a sports obsessed, beer swilling actor and Donnie is a more effete literature professor. They do both share a love of baseball (the Yankees, to be exact), but on the surface they seem to have little in common. However, I have known friends who are of similarly disparate backgrounds who are inseparable. And by the second act, all doubts about why these two are friends seems to disappear. The script does rely on some standard tropes of guy comedy: sports metaphors, jokes about weird food cravings and an odd conversation of what the baby is doing during sex. However, even with all the cliches, the script never feels trite.
Jesse Perry as Raymond has a bravado and swagger that could so easily make for an annoying character, but which never does. It is clear through the course of the play that this exterior hides a past of poor parenting, unreal expectations, and fear of failure. Perry gives Raymond a heart and vulnerability that could so easily have been glossed over for more comedic effect and enables the character to really grow and develop. Lanny Langston as Donnie was my favorite of the two, however. Maybe it is because I identify more with his character (and the stop watch) or because of Langston’s natural charm, but he was a joy to watch on stage. His delight at all aspects of the pregnancy and joy at the prospect of fatherhood was endearing, as was his doubt as to whether he would be man enough to be a good father. Through the course of the show, Langston shows Donnie to be the more stable and grounded of the two. Together, Perry and Langston have an easy rapport that makes this friendship so fun to watch.
Keven Myhre has created a believable man-cave set. It is instantly identifiable and filled with so many small touches from the beer mug lights to the old game system sitting forgotten in a box. It is a very familiar and friendly atmosphere for the play. Costume design by Brenda Van der Wiel helped to more clearly define the characters from beginning and the costumes were well executed.
Director Tracy Callahan made good use of the small space in the Chapel Theater at SLAC. She also made her contribution seem almost invisible. The rapport between the characters was that good. The pacing of the dialogue kept moving and the interactions between the two actors was believable. My wife, who saw the show with me, did feel that some of the physical interactions (poking each other in the side,for example) didn’t seem real to her. I didn’t feel that way, but was a bit bothered by the constant motion around the room. I have never seen two people who move around the room quite as much as these two characters did. A small annoyance, but one that did, on occasion, take me out of the moment.
Manning Up is a funny, delightful play, one that will certainly spark debate and conversations about manliness and parenthood as it receives more and more productions. This is Lewis’s first foray into pure comedy, and it is a successful endeavor. SLAC has achieved another triumph in presenting this new work and given us a funny and touching evening. SLAC may be known for producing more edgy fare, but this proves that they are equally talented at shows with more traditional themes as well.