Review – Daytona – Theater Royal Haymarket

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New plays set in America aren’t as common in London as I’d hope (Mr. Burns aside), so I was quite intrigued when the opportunity came up to see Daytona, which debuted last summer at the Park Theater. I’d guess that it’s season at the Theater Royal Haymarket is more about replacing a failing show than about moving something with a huge groundswell of support into an appropriate sized venue: as a three-hander, it’s a bit intimate in this barn; its replacement, Great Britain, will be much more appropriate in the space.

But Daytona is still a compelling, enjoyable piece of theater that well deserves a chance for a wider audience. It features three characters late in their lives – husband and wife, Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer), and Joe’s brother, Billy (Oliver Cotton) – all with vibrant life stories and in no way suddenly made irrelevant since they’re past retirement. The play start with Joe and Elli at their apartment in New York, and they seem almost dismissable in their cute bickery old couple-ness. But Billy’s arrival sets off chain reactions that show that, even in their sunset years, all of these people have decisions to make about what it means to live right and well and we, as audience members, have no idea what any of the three of them are going to decide.

Unfortunately, rather a lot of the play is devoted to Billy’s long ramble about his recent trip to Daytona, which spends a lot of time not getting to the point and simultaneously manages to avoid Joe’s big question: why did Billy walk out of his brother (and sister in law’s) life thirty years ago and just completely disappear? We are, fortunately, given the opportunity to explore this ellipsis in more detail in the second act: but, although Cotton (as writer) comes up with an answer, I found it not entirely satisfying as why a person would not just walk away from his only family but completely reject his culture. Furthermore, I really just couldn’t believe that a traumatized Eastern European could have assimilated so seamlessly into American culture as Billy is supposed to have done. Sure, his accent is perfect Midwestern – but, despite his slip-up in Daytona, he doesn’t feel in any way like a man with a complicated psychology and cultural depth.

Elli and Joe, well, I can by them as old people who love ballroom dancing and who have been together for decades, but the feeling of having struggled as hard as they must have during the war – from what I’ve heard, there are scars, some of which manifest themselves in some pretty strange ways (i.e. avoidance tactics in conversation, a certain hard-headedness) and Elli and Joe really seem just a bit too soft to sell me on their histories. Even Elli’s little “slip” into slight European-ness in her second act accent wasn’t enough – frankly, I think she would have just started talking in her native language instead of slipping Yiddish phrases in – and neither of the other guys, well, they weren’t believable as people who hadn’t been in America their whole lives. They didn’t feel like immigrants.

That said, all three of them were convincing as people with a fifty year history, and this is what I loved about the play, as well as the pleasure of watching the story unfold because I truly never knew what was going to happen next. Sure, there were gaps, but with pros like these on stage I was willing to go for the ride. The interval came and I was eager to get back in my seat and see what happened next – an experience I get about four times a year. So even though Daytona may be too intimate for the Haymarket, it’s still an enjoyable evening of theater that well repays its investment in time. I see it’s touring, and that makes me glad: more people deserve a chance to let this well-polished cast take them on a trip of imagination.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on July 7th, 2014. It continues through August 23rd.)

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