"I'm going to get a gun!" Marv is whining. Slouched on the family sofa and wearing a paper party hat, a torn and stained cardigan, and an even dirtier white t-shirt underneath, Marv (Will Marchetti) is turning 75 today, and he just can't face it. "I'm going to get a gun!" he repeats, as his wife, Lois (Frances Lee McCain) bellows back at him from off stage. "That's all I need," she grouses. "Holes in the remodel."
Thus begins The Horses, a new 80-minute play written by Brian Thorstenson and staged by Alternative Theater Ensemble in a San Rafael storefront, now through November 15, 2009. Sandwiched between Floorcoverings of Marin County and the Rebound Bookstore, which, on the night I attended, served as the theater-company-without-a-home's lobby, the space is clean, cramped, and unpretentious -- there's a "For Lease" sign in the window. Most of the chairs are of the folding variety; two of them are perched in one of the storefront's windows. Extension cords snake around the ceiling and spotlights are secured with plastic zip ties.
Marv is your typical big baby, the classic crusty old coot who's crushed by a lifetime of petty regrets. Lois is well within her rights to be impatient with this shallow shell of a man. It's not the big questions he's wrestling with. He bellyaches about never having been fly-fishing, he wishes he had gone hang-gliding. Boo-freaking-hoo. And while his wife is running around trying to get ready for his party, including making him his favorite cake, he can't even get it together to change out of his ratty rags.
The problem, we learn, is that Marv has a rather active fantasy life. As soon as Lois is out of the room, the couch becomes the Pontiac Marv never had, and a younger woman named Patsy (Anne Darragh) appears by his side. In her blue party dress and bright red pumps, Anne is the opposite of practical Lois, a sassy, flirty, fun-loving broad who shares Marv's fondness for bucket-list adventures. Their relationship is not sexual (that train appears to have left Marv's station some time ago), but Patsy is a fantasy nonetheless, a none-too-bright party girl who uses quirky phrases like "That's a total bust!" to describe the things she likes. She's Marv's kind of gal.
One of Marv's minor regrets (minor, to the extent that it appears to trouble him less than never having been to Machu Picchu) is his son, Michael (Michael Ray Wisely), who describes himself as an "interior architect" rather than an "interior designer" because his father already thinks he's a bit "fruity." As if to help confirm his father's assumptions about his sexuality, Michael gives his dear old dad a new sweater for his birthday. This momentarily alleviates Lois's concern that Marv's old sweater is not "spiffy" enough to wear in front of his guests, but we can easily predict that Marv will never see them anyway. When given the choice between attending a birthday party he doesn't want and hanging out in his living room with Patsy and his magical couch, well, it's not even close.
In general the actors do a fine job with this material, and I liked the numerous Mamet-like scenes in which the actors deliberately and harmoniously talked over each other. But for the most part, I wonder if in trying to illuminate the struggles of a not-especially sympathetic, ordinary, and boring individual, Thorstenson might have set his sights too high. Worse is the play's improbable plot twist at the end, which felt wildly out of character for Lois and a cop-out when it came to Marv. How will this schlub come to terms with his late-life crisis? The answer Thorstenson has devised would work if The Horses was strictly a farce, but there's just enough reality and seriousness here that I wished the playwright had followed through and delivered a more thoughtful and cathartic payoff. Lord knows a number of us would have been interested in his answer.
The Horses runs through November 15, 2009 at Alternative Theater Ensemble's temporary location at 1609 Fourth Street in San Rafael. For tickets and information, visit altertheater.org.