The beauty of New Ground Theatre's comedy Things Being What They Are lies in how our hearts gradually soften for Michael Carron's crotchety, imposing Jack, a rudely forward character who pushes his presence onto his neighbor Bill (Matt Moody), and whom playwright Wendy MacLeod uses to explore themes of marriage and mortality.
Bill, at the start of Things, is moving into a new condo when he meets Jack, a man who is soon talking at length - without being asked - about his pending biopsy and troubles with his ex-wife, their three children, and his ex's new husband. While unpacking, Bill himself offers hints - such as turning his wedding picture face down - of his own marriage coming to an end, while also talking a good game about their love still being alive. Jack, in turn, keeps pushing and prodding, eventually revealing that Bill's marriage may not be as hunky-dory as he asserts. And as MacLeod's play progresses, these characters, the play's only two visible ones, form a yin/yang of optimist/pessimist, particularly in regard to their perspectives on relationships, both marital and platonic, and the inevitability of death.
While Carron could be more crotchety and much less likeable to further drive home Jack's transition from major annoyance to supportive friend, his portrayal during Saturday's performance walked a tightrope between being a person you want to like and one who's intolerable. You kind of enjoy having him around because he provides company and means well, but also kind of wish he would leave because he's somewhat annoying, largely because of Jack's belief that he knows better than others - such as his doctors who recommend rest after a biopsy. (He's sure resting will give his cancer time to recuperate and attack with a vengeance.)
Jack is also nosy; upon first arriving, uninvited, at Bill's home, he wanders around peeks into the kitchen, and eventually helps himself to a beer. He even sits atop the back of Bill's couch with his feet on the cushions - the audacity of which had me cringing - and tosses the pillows he says are in his way (though they aren't) over the back of the sofa.
Still, such impoliteness is easy to overlook because Carron's Jack is endearing, even heartwarming, as he directly addresses Jack's optimism about his dying marriage to Adele (voiced by Kelly Thompson). He may be forthright, but Carron's Jack isn't heartless. There's a clear sense that his heart is in the right place when pushing Bill to accept the truth - that Adele's relationship with another man is an affair that means divorce is in Bill's future - and it's apparent that this is a situation in which harsh words "spoken in love" are actually spoken in love.
Unfortunately for Moody, whose performances (such as his turn in the Prenzie Players' 2013 Bear Girl) I usually like, the actor doesn't have much with which to work here. MacLeod pours so much focus into Jack that she kind of neglects Bill; as the play is almost a 90-minute monologue for Jack, broken up with brief responses from his listener here and there, Bill seems only to exist to allow Jack time to breathe. Moody is okay in the role, but it's likely that he's not better in it because the role itself is just okay, serving solely as an excuse for Bill to pontificate on life and love.
Director Chris Jansen stages the play with minimal action and an even, if meandering, flow that fits Jack's almost stream-of-conscious dialogue. Despite the occasional unpacking of a box or the fetching of another beer, Jack and Bill do a lot of sitting or standing and talking.(A lot of talking.) Scenic designer Patty Koenigsaecker's set, meanwhile, is exactly what's necessary: a well-rendered empty condo with built-in shelves and a bar-height counter-top, painted in a beautiful, velvety, milk-chocolate brown with an undertone of terra cotta (a color scheme I'm now considering for a room in my own home).
In the end, I liked New Ground's Things Being What They Are almost solely because the production is an excellent testament to Carron's skills as an actor. I likely won't, however, remember MacLeod's script, particularly because she doesn't cover any new ground (sorry) in her themes. Despite its occasional laughs, I learned nothing and felt little - except for a growing fondness for Carron's Jack.
Things Being What They Are runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Village of East Davenport) through February 7, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)326-7529 or visiting NewGroundTheatre.org. [With February 1's show cancelled due to the blizzard, a final performance has been added for Saturday, February 7, at 7:30 p.m.]