A promotional image for Henry & Alice: Into the Wild at Park Square Theatre.
A funny thing happened to me after attending the American premiere of Henry & Alice: Into the Wild, which runs through October 22 at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage. I enjoyed the show and came out afterward feeling exhilarated and a little gleeful. Once I went home and slept on it, however, I realized that the glee had only to do with the performances: I didn’t like the play.
Did You Know?
- Henry & Alice is a sequel to Sexy Laundry, which Park Square Theatre produced in 2014.
- Mary M. Finnerty directed both 2014’s Sexy Laundry and 2017’s Henry &
- Alice curiously looks less like Charity Jones and more like Carolyn Pool in this installment.
- John Middleton returns as Henry, a man still haunted (or is that taunted?) by self-help books.
Let me back up. Henry & Alice: Into the Wild is Canadian playwright Michele Riml’s sequel to a show called Sexy Laundry, which Park Square produced in 2014, apparently to great success (I didn’t see it). Both shows center on the trials and foibles of the same upper middle class Canadian couple in their early 50’s. Sexy Laundry followed the couple on a weekend excursion to a romantic hotel, and drew warm humor from their attempt to get their lagging sex life going again – with the assistance of the self-help manual Sex for Dummies.
The current play takes place a few years after the events of Sexy Laundry. Henry (John Middleton) has lost his high-earning job and with it most of their retirement savings. The two are trying to readjust their expectations and their lifestyle accordingly. Part of that means foregoing the usual summer rental cottage and substituting a camping trip, a first for them. (Spoiler: It doesn’t end like the camping trip in Detroit.) We find them setting up camp, with the assistance of Camping for Dummies, as the play begins.
To be clear: this isn’t a story about a working class couple in which one or both lose their jobs and can no longer afford to make mortgage payments and see their house foreclosed. It’s not about a family who is confronting catastrophic debt because a family member has suffered a serious illness and they don’t have coverage and the hospital bills are astronomical (Henry and Alice live in Canada). The stakes aren’t quite at that level.
Instead, Henry loses a job he loved and worked at for 20 years (“There’s no better job,” he says mournfully), and he may have to take another, less prestigious job. They’ve got one kid in college, a pot-loving fifteen-year-old at home, and a third is graduated and in the working world. They own their nice house, and, yes, they’ll have to to downsize…but, as Henry puts it, “we’re doing all right.” They won’t be able to buy Asiago cheese, but they won’t be using food stamps either.
Much of the play explores how losing one’s job can be incredibly stressful. For Henry, the most difficult part is the psychological adjustment. Henry prided himself on being a successful engineer and his self-esteem has understandably suffered. The deeper problem for Henry, though, is that he cleaves to an identity that is predicated on gender norms and family values that, to borrow the genteel phrasing of an old Literature professor of mine, “are no longer in the ascendant.” Now that he’s no longer able to serve as “the breadwinner” and “ATM Dad,” he doesn’t know who he is anymore.
Henry also doesn’t know if Alice will feel differently about him now. He wonders: was it always about the money? No, it was not, and Alice (Carolyn Pool) spends the beginning of the play putting on a brave face and trying to reassure him that things – and this camping trip, too – are just fine. That gameness lasts about ten minutes, whereupon the two start gently spatting. The rancor is interspersed with lively banter, though, and it’s funny. Banter is sex, that same professor said; here, it gives us a sense of how much these two love each other.
There are some extended physical comedy sequences in this play that are quite hilarious. Even as I was snorting with laughter, however,I was obliquely aware that 99.9% of the hilarity could be attributed to the sheer comic genius of Poole and Middleton. I cannot see this play being nearly as funny or as fun without them. The performances are spectacular, so much that I will go so far as to say that if you don’t see this play, you’ll will miss two of the best comic performances on Twin Cities stages since Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s equally riotous turn in Liberty Falls, 54321.
As Henry, Middleton seems always to be slightly embarrassed (in a good way). Stiff and awkward and rigidly polite, he is the American equivalent of Hugh Grant, and it’s a blast to watch him struggling futilely to loosen up and be more spontaneous (one of Alice’s requests). Middleton is particularly compelling in a micro-scene in Act Two, in which Henry stands in the moonlight in the middle of the woods and sheepishly asks God for a little direction.
I’m a long-time Carolyn Pool fan. I can’t be sure what it was that made this particular performance stand out as a tour de force. As Alice, she draws on her ample talents at physical humor with perfect timing, but there was something more – let’s call it a courageous vulnerability. You can see the like in videos of a young Elaine May performing comedy sketches with a young Mike Nichols, or in her wildly underrated movie A New Leaf. Pool’s nuanced performance also reminded me of Giulietta Masina’s work in La Strada and later Fellini films.
It’s a pity that both actors are stuck with dialogue that does not do justice to their capabilities for honesty and nuance, and in a play that persistently normalizes dated and narrow assumptions about gender, parenting, and (above all) white, upper-middle-class privilege. I tried to stay on Henry and Alice’s side for the duration of the play, but it’s not easy as the play goes on. Without minimizing the gravity or the pain of job loss, Henry and Alice fairly reek of entitlement by Act II. I don’t mean that they’re not entitled to complain – complaining is healthy and restorative, and it shows that they’re human. I mean “entitled” in the sense that they lack any awareness about where they stand relative to other people – and not just people “like them” – or how their own “recession and layoff” story compares and connects to the “recession and layoff” stories of millions and millions of others.
At the end of the day, Henry and Alice are healthy and safe, with cars and enough money to buy a top-of-the-line tent and trick it out with a few sofa pillows and a throw from Pottery Barn. I had no problem with the two venting about “small stuff,” like how tight the sleeping bags turned out to be (“It’s a deathtrap!,” cries Alice of hers). However, Henry and Alice operate from a limited perspective in which they “deserve” to have their expectations met because they have done everything “right” according to the criteria of people of their class and background– even when those expectations are far in excess of what the vast majority of people can dream of.
The most cringeworthy moment occurs late in Act II, when Alice is ranting about how she may have to take a job to her free-spirited sister, Diane (a soulful Melanie Wehrmacher, great as always). “Work’s not so bad,” Diane says, triggering an extended account of suffering through all the work she’s had to do as the older sibling and as a stay-at-home mother who has raised two children to adulthood. This was, well, okay up to a point – but to hear Alice describe how back-breaking it’s been to raise three healthy children in a house that probably has granite counters in the kitchen, with lakeside cottage rentals in the summers, and as much serious cheese as she desires, it sounds like she was laboring in the salt mines for the past 30 years. Women working and being part of two-income households – even the primary breadwinners – is not exactly a new phenomenon, and Alice’s indignation at it doesn’t generate sympathy.
When Alice declares, indignantly, that because she’s done what was expected of her, she deserves to have “her turn”, it’s hard to stay with her. Henry, at least, feels remorse for once having made a cruel joke about a man who tread the executive-suite-to-Best-Buy-salesman path that he himself now seems destined to follow. We like him more for that and less for being unable to stand the free-spirited Diane, who has flouted all the rules he and Alice have scrupulously followed and somehow remains happy.
If plays are studies in character, seeing this play distracted me with the characters’ obliviousness. Henry and Alice are people who rate their problems only in relation to the lives of people just like themselves, and are ignorant of and indifferent to the rest. One of Americans’ – and, apparently, also the Canadians of this play – few things in common these days seems to be a sense of aggrievement. Henry and Alice’s willful blindness to how bad other folks have it, and, more generally, to what’s going down across town and all over the world remains a luxury denied to all but the lucky few.
When I say that I didn’t like the play, a lot of this comes down to the unsympathetic characters and what they seem to represent. Henry and Alice lost their dream and they must mourn it – who wouldn’t? A little more gratitude and a little less complacency would make it easier to like them and make the laughter feel a little less uncomfortable. When you see Henry and Alice, go for the acting; don’t expect alchemy.
Henry and Alice: Into the Wild plays through October 22 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN.