Nostalgia in the Time of Facebook

Writer-director-producer Stuart Bousel labels his new play The Age of Beauty “an experiment in conversation,” and indeed the entire play is made up of conversations between different pairs of women, broken up by short monologues by other women characters who don’t appear in any of the dialogues. The women in the dialogues are all members of the same circle of friends from college in Tucson, Arizona, some of them living now in San Francisco and others in New York.

Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Megan Briggs and Sylvia Hathaway in The Age of Beauty.

Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Megan Briggs and Sylvia Hathaway in The Age of Beauty. Photo by Cody Rishell.

Bousel presents this world premiere through his own company No Nude Men Productions in association with the Exit Theatre, and it’s running in the Exit’s small Exit Studio black-box space. (Full disclosure: Bousel also produces the San Francisco Olympians Festival, with whom I’ll be doing a play reading this November, and Allison Page, who acts in this production, is another one of this year’s Olympian playwrights.)

There’s no set to speak of, just a small table for two. A waitress with a rough Southern accent (Megan Briggs) talks to us while she’s changing the table settings, always musing on the idea of memory. “Think about someone you know who died while you were doing something else with your life,” she says, and asks us to picture that person. Do we picture them as we imagine they were not long before they died, or frozen in time in some memory back when we knew them? She talks about an ex-girlfriend who says she doesn’t remember how it felt when they had sex, and contemplates whether memory is inherently ephemeral and elusive or whether that’s just how the brain protects itself.

The actual scenes are about memory too, in a way, in the sense that everybody’s living in the past to some extent. They talk a lot about their college days—old grudges, old love affairs, old friends they don’t keep in touch with anymore. Some look back with nostalgia and others with a shudder, but they spend most of their time together either dredging up the past or gossiping about what old mutual acquaintances are doing now. Tied up in this is the idea of the Belle Époque, the Age of Beauty of the title—whether the notion of there being a golden age in one’s life is even a useful concept.

First we meet Regina and Susan, two old friends from college who met by chance at a funeral of someone they hadn’t realized they both knew. They haven’t kept in touch, and there’s an awkwardness between them that they’re both refreshingly up-front about. In fact, all three of the dialogues feature friends talking through their awkwardness. Susan is an actress, a fact she never tires of bringing up, and Emma Rose Shelton plays her with a fun-loving breeziness that makes her social inappropriateness hilarious. Regina (a bright and sharp Sylvia Hathaway) was an accounting major, and she’s genial but merciless in bursting Susan’s bubble about the nature of their friendship way back when. Bousel’s dialogue is incisive and terribly witty, and it sparkles throughout this scene.

Then the scene changes, courtesy of the contemplative waitress, and the two actors have now transformed into two of the old acquaintances that they were talking about in the first scene. Hathaway is now Regina’s former best friend Jenny, estranged since an incident in college, and Shelton is Imogen, who shares an ex with Susan. Imogen is now a famous, jet-setting writer, whom Shelton gives the kind of amused serenity of someone who doesn’t have to work a day job. The mom of a new baby, Hathaway’s Jenny has a sort of simmering discontent—their house is nice but not nice enough, she makes good money but wishes her aimless husband would get a better job—but regards her plight with the same wry, slightly barbed sense of humor that she unleashes on others.

The third scene switches things up with a new pair of performers. With the awfully  faint sound of a train in the background, Allison Page enters as Lisa, a grumpy passenger on a cross-country trip. She’s already sick of talking to her seatmate, who at first seems like a chatty stranger but we soon learn is actually a friend from yoga class whom Lisa invited along on the trip. Erstwhile waitress Briggs has an open, pleasant forthrightness as Deva that proves an excellent foil for Lisa’s sardonic curmudgeonliness as they discuss whether adults still have the openness and tolerance to become good friends the way people do when they’re younger.

Page also shows up at the end in a very short closing monologue as a hitherto-unseen character we’ve heard mentioned once or twice. Although the subject matter and thoughts expressed are interesting, these interludes aren’t nearly as sharp as the dialogue in the longer scenes, which is certainly preferable to the other way around.

The connection between the first two scenes is immediately obvious: They’re the same actors playing two pairs of old friends who talk a lot about the other pair. The waitress, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the Tucson crew, though we find out she’s separated from them by only a couple of degrees of acquaintance. The scene between Lisa and Deva is more of a curiosity. They’re on a train, and at first we might think this has something to do with another train story that we heard about earlier in the play, but it doesn’t. The characters aren’t ones we’ve really heard about yet, at least not that one would readily recall, but it turns out that they know most of the rest of the Tucson crew. And the thing is, we’ve met them before, just not in this play.

One interesting thing that came as a complete surprise to me is that half the characters in The Age of Beauty—and most of the characters that are mentioned but unseen (Chester, Hugo, Trent)—are the same as in Bousel’s 2011 play, The Edenites, which is also about that same group of old friends from Tucson, now meeting up again in San Francisco. But this isn’t exactly a sequel. For one thing, it’s a very different kind of play, with a different structure and different themes and concerns. Also, as far as I can tell it’s going on at about the same time as The Edenites, or at least the Jenny and Imogen scene is. The scene between Lisa and Deva seems to happening shortly after the other play, and refers directly to a couple of events in it. That’s the only scene for which it’s helpful to have seen The Edenites, just to know (roughly) who these two are and what they have to do with the other people and scenes in the play.

For the most part, however, it’s not at all necessary to have seen the other play to appreciate what’s going on here; we hear enough about the offstage characters that we have a pretty good sense of who they are, even if we haven’t “met” them. Becoming acquainted with their extended circle of friends—male and female, straight and gay and in between—entirely through gossipy but thoughtful conversations between women proves terribly effective.

If you have seen both plays, however, it’s fascinating to see how different scenes and different actors change your perception of the characters, some of whom seem much more sympathetic or grounded in this play than in the other. The only overlap in the cast is Briggs, who played a very different version of Jenny in The Edenites and is similarly distinct from the Deva we met there.

The main effect of the connection between these plays is that it makes the repeat viewer curious about the few old friends and exes talked about at length whom we don’t meet in either play. It would be silly to suggest that this curiosity requires some sort of spin-off about the notorious unseen exes we hear so much about, but the fact that it even occurs to one (okay, to me) to wonder about them is a testament to the way Bousel has opened up the world of these plays.

The Age of Beauty
Through August 16
No Nude Men Productions
Exit Studio
156 Eddy Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #81 of 2013, attended August 1.

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