Take Me Back: In brief
An ex-con moves back in with his Oklahoma mother in Emily Schwend's dark comedy, directed by Jay Stull. The cast includes Charlotte Booker and James Kautz.
Take Me Back: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Whatever negatives it has, there is value in Emily Schwend's Take Me Back, a by-the-numbers story told in a clever algorithm. Granted, the play is thick with cliché and riddled with exposition, but it does boast a tidy narrative do-si-do, a dramaturgical gimmick that allows us to first see a scene and only later understand it.
To keep things clear as she maneuvers us, Schwend writes uncomplicated signpost characters: ex-con Bill (James Kautz), back from jail and barreling toward destruction; his sugar-addicted mother, Sue (Charlotte Booker); and Julie (Boo Killebrew), Bill's wistful, bound-to-move-on ex. Schwend barely develops them—that way, as that other (hidden) plot develops, we know exactly where this trio will be.
Bill hasn't been back from lockup long, but he's already sick of caring for his forgetful mother, a school-lunchroom worker with a hazy understanding of nutrition. As he reluctantly pours her glasses of Sunny Delight, Bill tries to tear himself away to work on his truck. Where could he need to go so quickly? Surely he wants to stick around to talk to Julie, who has come for a visit, dropping hints about her unfulfilling marriage. But Bill clearly has his mind on other things. Once Schwend rewinds the action, showing us Bill's mysterious front-yard chat with Casey (Jay Eisenberg), we begin to grasp why the poor fellow is so jittery.
Schwend sets her action in Oklahoma, and though she's great at writing in “drawl,” this reductive red-state setup seems a little lazy, bait for an already Midwest-averse New York audience. “I tell you whut,” Sue keeps saying, just as she drifts toward sugar coma, but Schwend hasn't given her anything to tell. Director Jay Stull lets the actors saw on one string: Kautz yelps, Sue whines, Julie smiles nervously. Despite the actors’ obvious capabilities, they have no more notes to play. This is the result of putting plot over character, macrostructure over the microstructure of each interaction. Take Me Back wants to deploy its components as chess pieces, but you realize: Between moves, those pawns and rooks spend a lot of time going nowhere at all.—Theater review by Helen Shaw