Anyone with a 401(k) has dreamed of a magical fantasyland called “retirement,” last stop on an arduous journey. No more drama. A drool-inducing vision. What’s easy to forget is that everyday struggles can fuel hope, and that’s what propels us through life. If obstacles seem insurmountable at times, they also serve as counterpoint to a better future, just beyond the horizon — which we might reach, if we only keep plugging away. So what happens in retirement when there’s no more struggle?
In Detroit Repertory Theater’s latest comedy, What Next?, Bessie (Barbara Busby) and Henry (Council Cargle) explore the placid side of life as they kick off retirement in a cozy cabin. Busby and Cargle have the long-married couple thing down pat; the play opens with a hilariously scripted scene of Henry and Bessie pushing all of each other’s buttons. A thunderstorm is brewing, and Henry — content with a book — is at odds with Bessie, who wants to charge outside to soak up the elements.
“Face the storm,” Bessie challenges her husband. After all, hadn’t they marched together “against the enemy” in their anti-establishment youth?
“Waking up next to you is like sleeping in the eye of the storm,” Henry sighs.
Although obviously still in love, the couple bicker about whether retirement is a time of withdrawal or a time of renewal. Bessie wants to recapture some of the excitement of her youth, hinting at the possibility of a little somethin’ out there in the rain. Practical Henry just wiggles his eyebrows toward the safe, dry bedroom. As lightning flashes, tension mounts, and then … there’s a knock at the door.
Enter unexpected visitor after unexpected visitor, until a virtual storm of trouble’s brewing inside the cabin. First up is a disheveled young man (Chuck Reynolds), demanding to use the phone. He’s quickly followed by an equally disheveled young woman (Leah Smith) and bossy neighbor Maude (Charlotte Leisinger).
A botched robbery, a loaded gun, Maude’s big mouth and a string of lies play into the title of the show. From the first knock, the audience is never quite sure where the action will lead. Smith and Reynolds continually vie for Bessie and Henry’s sympathy, painting one another as criminal. But who’s telling the truth? The entire show takes place in the cabin’s living room, but the humor and pacing keep things lively.
What Next? by Jason Williams was actually discovered as part of Detroit Repertory Theater’s nationally recognized New Playwright’s Program. Williams — an Iowa resident with a penchant for prairie storms — is deft in his blending of tumultuous weather with the tension characters feel at the prospect of the future. On the one hand, there’s bland retirement, on the other, painfully confusing youth.
In a burst of comedy, the overly romantic Bessie commands “Shoot me!” to a bumbling, gun-toting Reynolds. After all, tragic demise is better than armchair life, right? Maybe. Later, Smith proves her worth as an actress by bursting into real tears between jokes, as she recounts her own unique brush with a gun. It’s two takes on the same topic — something Williams does well along age and gender lines.
The script’s only shaky aspect is one character’s expressed desire to be “raped” and another character’s continuous false cry of “rape.” Although perhaps written in an effort to illustrate how sexuality can inject passion and pain into life from the perspective of retirement and the perspective of youth, Williams’ text brings up sexual violence (“rape” is a strong word) in a lighthearted way that feels untrue to the actual concept.
In all, however, What Next? is an amazing find. New playwright Williams provides a strong framework on which the Detroit Rep crew hangs considerable talent. Leisinger is a hoot as the thunderous Maude; Reynolds and Smith keep the audience guessing as to their characters’ actual identities and no one would know that Busby and Cargle hadn’t been locked in a cabin trading sly jokes for years.
Humor builds in equal pace with the storm here, and when things finally come to a head, you might be surprised who’s curled up together on the loveseat. If life’s this entertaining in retirement, pass the 401(k) form this way.
What Next? by Jason Williams is at Detroit Repertory Theater (13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit) through Dec. 29. Shows Thursday-Saturday are at 8:30 p.m.; Saturday at 3 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $17. Call 313-863-1347 for more information.Kari Jones writes about theater and performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org