Exploring the assumption that most Midwesterners harbor great bitterness toward bi-coastal media and political types who merely sneer down on the heartlands from 35,000 feet in the air, playwright Jeffrey Sweet sets up a promising dramatic situation in which a blue-collar Ohioan takes revenge on a nerdy former high-school buddy now turned wealthy movie critic. “Flyovers” (the title refers to how people from the coasts view the span of U.S. states and cities in between) has an interesting premise and raises valid issues, but ultimately this uneven play dissolves into situational dark comedy rather than finding a thematic conclusion that fulfills the initial promise. More work and an expansion into two acts would help.
Using the all-purpose flashpoint of a high-school reunion, the four-character drama reintroduces Oliver (now a syndicated and influential entertainment personality) to the bunch of impoverished small-town losers who beat him up back when they were all in the same high school. The socially mobile critic (apparently a glutton for reliving childhood punishment) finds himself boozing at the home of former bully Ted, now a disenfranchised fountain of resentment married to a mentally challenged wife.
Using the bait of Iris, the woman after whom the geeky Oliver once lusted, Ted sets up a hair-brained blackmailing scheme in order to snag some of the critic’s cash. Unfortunately, plans go awry when Oliver reveals that his personal life features those well-known bi-coastal loose morals — his wife has walked out and no one now cares with whom he sleeps.
There’s resonance to Sweet’s themes, and the best scenes in this well-spoken play deal with Oliver’s coming to terms with the memories of (and reasons for) his childhood humiliation. There’s also a number of very strong performances in Dennis Zacek’s satisfyingly tight Victory Gardens production — Mark Vann is appropriately introspective as Oliver, whilst William Petersen and Amy Morton are very earnest and believable as the frustrated Buckeyes.
But once the debate about power, authority and happiness dissolves into a hackneyed blackmail scene (which ends all too abruptly), the play rather loses its way — a vague discussions of anti-Semitism goes nowhere. And despite the laudably egalitarian sympathies of the author, the Midwesterners are all stereotypically working-class and apparently oblivious of the booming economy.
If it is not to feed into the very stereotypes that it purports be deconstruct, this well-meaning drama needs to temper its observations with the shades of gray that invariably color the realities of modern geographic and class-based distinctions.