The side project. By Daniel Talbott. Directed by Adam Webster. With Derek Garza, Michael Manocchio. Running time: 1hr 15mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Benno Nelson
It’s incredible how engrossing it can be to watch actors playing people doing pretty much nothing. And so Mike and Seth, a Midwest premiere by New York–based playwright Daniel Talbott, opens strong. Mike (Derek Garza), a late-20s professional on the night before his wedding, shuffles around his hotel room with a beer from the minibar. He awkwardly turns on some pay-per-view porn, turns it off and just sort of sits there. Seth (Michael Manocchio), Mike’s best friend from childhood, slinks in from the bathroom and gets into some pajamas. After plenty of silence and a few monosyllabic exchanges, Mike finally asks, “Are you pissed at me?” and the conversation that composes the body of the play takes shape.
This opening, though, highlights this production at its best: natural, affable, slightly uncomfortable. The hotel room set (designed by director Adam Webster) is perfectly tackily draped in beige. Garza’s Disney Prince–looking Mike at times seems to fill the entire room, at others receding into a corner. As Seth, Manocchio lends an intelligence and heartbreak that leak into his every action. Moreover their quiet moments together tell us more about the depth of their relationship than any of the anecdotes they recount as the night wears on.
Ultimately, the script is almost perfectly unnecessary. In it we’re told all the things we’ve already seen in silence. Mike is nervous about his wedding—that it won’t make him or his fiancée happier. He’s aware of his good fortune but haunted by the thought that he doesn’t appreciate it enough, or that there’s something more he seems to be longing for. Seth, meanwhile, has had his heart broken by his cheating ex-boyfriend and fears he’ll end up alone for the rest of his life. Like many old friends, Mike and Seth have a hard time relating in the present. They alternate between patiently listening to each other’s monologues and lobbing off well-timed “fuck yous” to help the other work himself up to an appropriate froth.
This isn’t to say the play couldn’t be improved by a better script or more action—it would be. Talbott fills the script with plenty of potential twists and turns but each is gingerly stepped around. Mike’s infidelity to his fiancée only offers him a chance to praise himself for his feelings of ickiness. Seth’s crumbling relationship offers no lessons and Mike has no advice. We never believe Mike’s marriage anxieties are anything other than natural cold feet, and they never are. We don’t believe the sparring between these friends will end their relationship; it doesn’t. There is some kind of cataclysmic snowstorm occurring in Dallas that serves only to provide a calming underscoring of snowfall and wind.
More than being a sincere reminder of the power of active friendship, Mike and Seth ultimately serves as a testament to the durability of familiarity as a comfort: best friends from high school, snowfall in winter, a slight play handsomely acted about two dudes arguing.