“Backyard” by Mickey Birnbaum is a glimpse into the world of backyard wrestling. Chuck, a teenager played by Ian Bamberg, has written the script for a wrestling match between himself, “The Destroyer” and “The King of Tears” who will be played by Chuck’s best friend Ray, played by Adan Rocha.
Included in the script is Lilith, a girl from the neighborhood played by Esmer Kazinova, and Chuck’s mother, Carrie, played by Jacqueline Wright. However, when Chuck advertises the event on Facebook, his estranged deadbeat dad Ted, played by Hugo Armstrong, sees the notice and decides to show up unannounced. The ensuing tension that his appearance creates, causes circumstances to quickly spin out of control. And because every play should have a touch of normalcy to it, Birnbaum also includes scenes with Ray’s dad, Raymundo Sr. played by Richard Azurdia, who is an ex- Mexican wrestler still living in Mexico, forcing all of their meetings to take place at the fence separating the two countries. Yep, that’s the normal part of the play.
As far as dark comedy’s go, this one is much more dark than it is comedic. There is an insidious undercurrent of violence and abuse that goes beyond the wrestling in the backyard. The first interaction between Carrie and Ted, is fantastically funny with fight choreographer, Ahmed Best, using the two actor’s vastly disparate sizes to great effect. However, when Ted locks Carrie in his grasp so she can’t move, grabs her crotch and then starts stroking her when she demands that he move his hand, the comedy turns sinister belying the probability that their past included domestic abuse. The look of terror, but not surprise, that flashes across Wright’s face in this moment lends credence to that possibility and is enough to make any woman cringe. There is also a scene between Ted and Chuck in the backyard pool that foreshadows future violence. Lilith’s abject fear of Ted (his creepiness toward her notwithstanding), her hesitance to go home and the back story that she tells for her wrestling character also point to a history of abuse. These underlying currents of real violence feed into the playacted violence of the backyard wrestling seamlessly, making it obvious why the two women are the most vicious and cause the most damage when the play-fighting turns real. When looked at closely, the wrestling scenes act as a pretty accurate commentary for what is happening in the characters’ real lives.
Ray, buoyed up by Carrie’s encouragements, fights against always portraying the losing fighter. This same struggle and frustration is seen in his interactions with his father at the fence. Director Larry Biederman stages these scenes brilliantly and Rocha and Azurdia’s interactions are perfect. The arc to their relationship is executed beautifully ending in the father/son camaraderie that both of them seem to be looking for the whole time. Carrie and Ted, fall at the other end of the spectrum becoming increasingly infantile and self-obsessed as they fight – literally at times – for their son’s affections. These are not responsible people, and Wright and Armstrong do an excellent job of making that abundantly clear.
Their storyline, however, is not executed as well as Ray and his father’s. What should be one of the most pivotal scenes is missing. The lights go down on Chuck leaving his father in the backyard. Chuck has just met his father and his reaction to him is naturally untrusting and reticent. However, when Chuck reappears, he arrives with groceries, presumably sent on this errand by his father, and the two act like they are best friends. It is as jarring for the audience as it is for Carrie, because like her, we missed out on that piece of the puzzle. Their ending also comes across as moralizing and hokey, which is a complete departure from any of their previous actions. Everything is tied up with an unbelievable bow.
“Backyard” is a dark and disturbing piece interspersed with bits of hilarity, but first and foremost, it is dark. It also contains quite a bit of onstage smoking, especially in the first act. So if you are sensitive to that, this one might not be the best choice for you.
“Backyard” The Echo Theater Company Through July 13 Tickets: www.EchoTheater- Company.com or (310) 307-3753.
Kat Michels is a writer, twotime Telly and Regional Emmy award-winning documentarian, poet, Los Angeles theater critic and above all else storyteller. Her children’s book Children Have Got to Be Carefully Taught was released in January of 2014 and is now available on Amazon. www.katmichels.com