Last year, the St. Louis Repertory Theatre's Studio Theatre presented a nearly perfect production of Carter W. Lewis' Women Who Steal. This year, Lewis has courageously invited comparison and challenged himself by writing a companion piece, Men on the Take. Although a little less nearly perfect, it's a wonderful play that examines what men bring to, and take from, relationships, as well as the way they do and don't communicate.
George (Steven Hauck) meets Jake (Robert Sicular) in a coffeehouse, where George camps out to spy on his estranged wife, Evelyn, across the street in their house. It seems like an accidental meeting, but, as George gradually finds out, it is anything but. Determined to get to the truth of what went wrong in his marriage, George wants to retrieve the couple's "box of woe," which contains the angry thoughts the couple has written down rather than expressed over the years. Jake, for reasons of his own, wants to help, and the two undertake a journey fueled by caffeine, alcohol and testosterone, with occasional help from Jake's ex-wife, Helen.
Like Women, Men examines the aftermath of an extramarital betrayal and covers a lot of physical and emotional ground in one night. Carter has both liberated and limited himself by using many of the same situations and locations from the first play -- a coffee shop, a bar, a jail, a starlit exterior, the front seat of a car -- as a way to emphasize the different ways the two genders deal with similar events. Occasionally this gives the feeling that the characters are being manipulated to fit the structure rather than propel the story, but Carter is writer enough not to let this happen too often.
Some of this character/story disjoint may also be a result of the major flaw of the production, the dissimilar tone of the two main performances. Director Skip Greer, who does an excellent job of staging and storytelling, is responsible for setting and maintaining this tone, but ultimately it's the actors who are accountable for executing it. That's why casting is so important. Although Hauck is obviously a well-trained, capable actor, he just doesn't seem right for what the script tells us about George. In spite of his verbal dexterity, George knows he isn't communicating -- it's what fuels his frustration -- or at least learns it. Hauck's George, stuck in self-pity mode, seems too dim to be self-aware. Even in his quieter, more vulnerable moments, Hauck's still performing. In style and pitch, he seems to have stepped out of an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but is not the best choice for the quirky, slightly surreal quality of Lewis' writing, and not in the same play stylistically as his colleagues, who use the intimate space of the Studio Theatre to their advantage.
Sicular's Jake is laid-back but focused, too intelligent for his own good, aware of it but incapable of doing anything about it. He's just slightly bigger and weirder than life, which is the best way to describe Lewis' universe.
As in Women, all the roles of the gender not mentioned in the title are played by one performer. The amazing Jenna Cole brings Helen, Evelyn and several other women to marvelous and distinct life, with a different voice and carriage for each character. At one point, Lewis has fun with this one-actress conceit and fools us with exactly who is who; it's a good example of how he keeps the Women formula fresh in Men.
By the second act, as the story picks up and Hauck relaxes a bit more into the role, the material overcomes the shortcomings. Men on the Take continues the tradition of high quality that the Rep Studio has maintained over the past several seasons, making it the most consistently rewarding and enjoyable theater venue in town.