Who’d be middle-aged? There’s not much to recommend midlife in U.S. playwright Brett Neveu’s latest for the Royal Court, in which four friends assemble at the Red Bud motocross championship in southern Michigan. In a night of beer, dope and Salsa Super Cheddar Bacon Nacho chips around the campfire, these blue-collar buddies’ suppressed disappointments rise violently to the surface. You can almost smell the diesel in Jo McInnes’s naturalistic production. But the final effect is unintentional comedy rather than tragedy, as Neveu’s overblown climax strains to conceal the play’s mechanical technique.
You can see where things are leading. With shabby tents pitched by their truck, and a crate of beers open, Jason (Hywel Simons), Shane (Roger Evans) and Bill (Trevor White) are back at Red Bud, the motocross festival they’ve visited yearly since high school. They’re not kids anymore, even if they’re determined to behave like them, with help from Bill’s new 19-year-old girlfriend, Jana (Isabel Ellison). So when the fourth member of this party posse, Greg (Peter McDonald), arrives with a face like thunder and a resentful, pregnant wife, Jen (Lisa Palfrey), the scene is set for a tug-of-war for the men’s souls. Are they adults or eternal adolescents? Can Red Bud be as crazy as it once was? At their age, should it be?
The play’s strongest card is its depiction of male yearning for youth and wild abandon, as well as their desperation to preserve a space for those bygone days, even in responsible adulthood. That’s what this annual ritual is for — but it’s clear that the two interlopers (Bill’s girlfriend and Greg’s wife) don’t intend to play ball. In drama, they seldom do. Jana is there to show, by contrast, how old the guys are; Jen to show how infantile their behavior. That proceeds effectively enough: Neveu captures the buddies’ strenuous bonhomie, as Jason bellows “Red Bud” and moshes to the Beastie Boys; and their latent resentment of the female intruders, as when Jason celebrates news of the gender of Greg’s unborn baby. “A son? A little tiny Greg? That’s great.” On Tom Hadley’s in-the-round set, a camping pitch whose dusty grass grows under the audience’s feet, these exchanges are inescapably intimate.
But in the end, watching other people’s drinking games is no more fun here than elsewhere. McDonald’s Greg downs half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, attains an improbable lucidity, then indulges in a psychological blow-out barely implied by his earlier annoyance. He’s not alone in succumbing to rage and rancor: by the end, one wonders if any of these so-called friends remotely like one another. It’s hard not to guffaw when Bill, bloodied and broken, implores Jana not to leave. “Everything is fine,” he croaks. Far from it: by this stage, everything with Neveu’s Red Bud has gone badly wrong.