Stephen Belber’s awkwardly titled new play, “The Muscles in Our Toes” purports to be a comedy/drama about high school reunions but spends most of its time as a political discussion about how middle-aged American men feel about terrorism. Although the world premiere production at the El Portal Forum theater has a strong cast, and Belber’s dialogue is frequently amusing, the play is neither believable nor compelling.
Several old friends have gathered together in the choir room of their old high school, avoiding the majority of their 20th-year reunion alumni. Les (Daniel Milder) is a fight choreographer “heavy in the Pennsylvania theater scene,” and the Persian-American Reg (Michael Benyaer) works in some unspecified capacity for the government. Dante (Al Espinosa) is a blowhard banker with a chip on his shoulder against Reg, and Dante’s younger brother, Phil (Bill Tangradi), is tagging along for a good time. The group is concerned that one of their old classmates, Jim (Keith Ewell), may have been kidnapped by terrorists from Chad, and they drunkenly begin to plot ways of freeing their friend.
Into all of this machismo staggers the sloshed Carrie (Kristen Lee Kelly), whose past relationships with Dante and Reg suddenly brings their conflicts from two decades ago viscerally into the present.
Milder is convincingly earnest as the well-meaning Les, one of the few characters who seems content with where he is in life. Benyaer has a talent for sly, low-key humor, but when his character becomes strident and angry he’s less effective. Espinosa excels at presenting Dante’s bellicosity and charm, but the character’s Judaism, leading to conflict with Reg’s Islamic heritage, is forced and artificial in the writing, and plays that way. Tangradi is amusing as Phil, but what his character ultimately wants is never really clear. Ewell delivers Jim’s overblown rhetoric with charisma and skill. Finally, Kelly is both funny and affecting as Carrie, one of the few people in the play with any real self-knowledge, and the show could use a lot more of her energy.
Director Jennifer Chambers gets solid work from her cast, but the play remains problematic. The aspects of the show dealing with high school reunions don’t go beyond a surface treatment; the various plots to save Jim are completely unbelievable and are afforded a great deal of running time with no discernible payoff; and the Muslim/Israeli conflict at the end feels shoehorned in to provide a dramatic resolution to a meandering, talky play.
Donna Marquet’s set is effective and bland in the way that choir rooms often are. John Zalewski’s sound design is clever, providing the constant thumping bass of 1980s music from the reunion that’s just offstage.