By Dawnell Smith
Anchorage Daily News
"Smack the Wagon" is a funny, clever, biting play, but never brittle. It holds up to its bitterness, silliness and cleverly staged absurdities because of deft writing and an able cast that gives it a heart of gold.
The script by Greg Pierce opens as Ethan (Matt Smith) addresses the audience to explain his open marriage to Jess, played by Charlotte Kopp. The two actors work well together, with Kopp's sarcastic snarl and slash of red hair grating against Smith's obsequious delivery and khaki trousers. The couple clearly has issues, so they "playfully" lash out at each other at every turn.
The plot centers on Jess's fling with Dutch Ken, embodied with exuberant dexterity by Stuart Mathews. After a bout of banal sex and even more banal banter, Jess learns that Ken is working on a theater piece about love through the mail in his home country, Holland. She shows him Ethan's duffel bag full of love letters written by his parents, and so the shake-out begins.
First Ken steals the letters, then Ethan and Jess fly to Holland to get the letters back, and before you know it, Ethan jumps into bed with a woman he meets in a café, Annie (Frances Tolbert), and all four of them lie, reveal secrets, and lie again.
Ethan and Jess narrate and enact the story simultaneously at times, blurring the line between past and present, reflection and action, theater and meta-theater.
All the while, the stakes get higher and higher, and the distance between past misdoings and present misgivings dissolves. The barbed dialogue sounds quite East Coast in tempo with jabs like this from Jess (who gets some of the best lines in the play), "You don't have to try to cheer me up, Ethan. I have my own endorphins."
Or how about this one: "It's not like I'm breast-feeding my children with crack milk and then eating them."
Meanwhile Ethan, the sweet-talking nice guy, ends up doing and saying the most hurtful things of all.
I won't even begin to recount the skillful "World Cup" scene when competitive love, sex and sport reach sudden death and each character quests their own version of the golden goal.
Aside from some stiffness in the first minutes Saturday night, the cast held up to the material, leaning into the nastier lines and never allowing the promise of reconciliation to turn saccharine. Tolbert shows up later in the play, but does a good job making Annie wonderfully quirky, endlessly needy and quite memorable.
Though the final scene comes with a tidy message, it leaves a lot unsaid and unproven, which speaks well for the playwright. Ethan and Jess realize they belong together and should spend more time learning why, but they never grow out of the need to insult others to protect themselves. Love only reaches so far in this play, just as it does in life.
Technically, the play unfolds seamlessly in terms of pacing, with the sound and lighting quite tuned in to the tension of the script. The wide stage and multiple sets allow a lot of action with little pause, which suits the script entirely, and the costumes and props fit the bill without stealing the spotlight. (Well, except for the duck pond and the seal dream sequence, but I won't go into that).
The only drawback is that those sitting to the far north might find it hard to hear key scenes. As a note of advice, I suggest that you show up early and snatch seats closer to the doors than the far wall.
If that doesn't work out, just bend your ear the best you can, because director Kari Mote made a wise choice in pursuing this sharp, fresh script by Pierce of New York. The play is new and full of vigor, whatever its minor flaws and emerging dynamics.
I do have one question. What exactly does "Smack the Wagon" mean? I take the play's title as a riff on all the "smack" talk in sports—the play definitely excels in that arena—but what do you think?
SMACK THE WAGON will be presented at 8:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday through March 22 at Out North, 3800 DeBarr Road. Tickets cost $18-$20 (www.outnorth.org, 279-8099).