Sometimes watching a play is like having a friend tell you a confusing story.
You know, one of those stories where, a few minutes in, you begin to wonder exactly what the story is about and why, exactly, are they sharing it with you.
That’s how I felt watching Ammunition Theatre Company’s world premiere of “Brain Problems” by Malcolm Barrett.
Things start out pretty clearly. We meet Donnie who’s our narrator. Well, by his own admission, our semi-reliable narrator. Donnie has a problem: a brain problem to be exact. Some kind of condition that seems to be terminal. He’s apparently only got a couple months to live. But this isn’t a by-the-bedside-of-a-dying-man play. Or even a bucket list play. Instead, it’s a sort of - Donnie has had it with all the stupid lies - kind of play.
So this illness has given Donnie a couple of powers. One, he can talk to us through a series of snarky asides. And two, he can, through this commentary, replay moments in time. Like when he tells us what he’d really like to say to the people around him or how he thinks of people. Like Emma - who is maybe his girlfriend. Or maybe just a friend who happens to be a girl. So he introduces Emma, who seems a bit brash. Then he says maybe that’s not the way she really is and we meet her again as a different version of her self.
So they’re friends and she’s meeting with an activist group in Donnie’s apartment and Donnie kind of hates this but he goes along. This group seems to be interested in a bunch of social causes. And maybe they are a cult or maybe not. In any case, there’s Jesse and her boyfriend Ray (who everyone thinks is gay). Then there’s Josh, who seems more like Jesse’s boyfriend and they’re all there to talk about their activism, I think.
Here’s the part, like when your friend is telling you that story and you’re not really sure where it’s going or why he is telling it to you - and even though you like your friend and he’s really witty - well, what the hell is going on?
But just when I’m trying to figure out what this play is trying to be - that’s when the Penis soft-shoe begins. That’s right a group of five dancers in penis costumes come on and do a dance. These are elaborate costumes. These costumes took time. There’s a variety of colors. They are anatomically recognizable. And they’re singing to you about how that guy Ray is gay. This was a big artistic decision.
Here’s where you reach a crossroads with this play.
You can either get really frustrated and keep wondering what this story is about and why does this all fit together - and why would a dying man waste his time on this silliness - and what are these people talking about?
Or you can let go, go along for the ride, and enjoy the dancing dildos.
“Brain Problems” doesn’t really hold together. It feels like a collection of clever ideas that don’t really add up to a whole. Line by line the writing is clever and witty and the cast attacks it with gusto - but if you get too attached to the big idea, things start to get frustrating.
So if you’re in for a little distraction and can let go - it’s got fun moments.
“Brain Problems” plays at The Pico in West LA through May 19th.