Who's Afraid of Dialogue?

In theater, as in life, we expect marriages to fail, lovers to betray, and family members to hurt us, but when friendship takes the center stage, one cannot help but take note. This familiar but unpredictable territory offers much dramatic potential, and GableStage's current production Chinese Coffee makes the most of it. This is a moral play clothed in muscular language and comic sidelines. It deals with the ethics and philosophical underpinnings of drawing fiction directly from reality. Chinese Coffee is also a play about friendship. As we watch two men dismantle their own, it is somehow more disconcerting than to watch a romantic relationship unravel, something that is virtually common. Writer Francine du Plessix Gray mused, "Friendship is by its very nature freer of deceit than any other relationship we can know because it is the bond least affected by striving for power, physical pleasure, or material profit, most liberated from any oath of duty." Chinese Coffee challenges that premise, and it does so superbly.

The story: It's around 1:30 a.m. on a freezing night in New York City when struggling novelist Harry Levine (Paul Tei) pounds on the door of his best friend's apartment, failed photographer Jake Manheim (Michael Gioia). Harry has just been fired, he has $1.50 to his name, and he's come to collect some money Jake owes him. As luck would have it, Jake has even less money. But cash is only one of the things on Harry's agenda. He has entrusted his third novel for Jake to read and wants his friend's opinion. The two circle around each other, Harry pressing the issue and Jake sidestepping it, until finally Jake confesses that he has indeed read the novel: Not only is it a failure but it is at best a cheap imitation of life -- Jake's life. Jake accuses Harry of using intimate details from his family, love, and professional life to make a commercially successful novel. Worse, he accuses him of doing this knowingly. The two launch into an explosive battle of wit and words about the ethics of writing fiction and the value of their friendship, which becomes increasingly strained.

Unlike the predictable drama of two friends scratching and clawing each other to get to the top, Chinese Coffee is a more earnest, compelling drama of two men battling each other not to be at the bottom of the garbage heap. Both are middle-aged men who have long missed their chance to "make it" in the Big Apple -- Harry as the author of two remaindered novels, Jake as a mediocre nightclub shooter turned failed studio photographer.

This one-act, hour-and-a-half dialogue is a reminder that realistic, hard-nosed, word-driven scripts, which are the very foundation of contemporary American theater, are still one of our most successful methods of resolving ethical and psychological dilemmas. Ira Lewis's play has the kind of venomous, rapid-fire dialogue of David Mamet's American Buffalo and Sam Shepard's True West, which Chinese Coffee particularly mirrors in its mercurial shift in the balance of power. One also thinks of Edward Albee's relentlessly swift and ironic retorts in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Seeing it done here and now is like watching an old standard revived with more potency than ever. This meaty dialogue is full of challenging epithets; humorous, sardonic one-liners; and several thunderous crescendos that result in the play's thought-provoking conclusion.

Chinese Coffee is a quintessentially New York play. Tim Connelly's ramshackle bachelor's apartment captures the Greenwich Village milieu, as well as the black-coffee, no-milk, no-sugar existence that both characters live. Early on, the play borders on a Neil Simon, odd-couple sort of setup, but as soon as the characters begin to engage in true verbal combat, all risk of typecasting is shattered. Lewis is a Neil Simon with intellectual acuity, a Woody Allen who doesn't lean toward absurdity -- although the script's hilarious bantering and affection for the neurotic is delightfully reminiscent of both of those writers. Character details such as Harry's teeth grinding -- "I'm a grinder. I wake up with a mouthful of white dust" -- and hypochondria (he fears such maladies as knuckle cancer) provide not only comic relief but also vary the play's tempo. This is no small feat for 90 minutes without an active plot, scene change, or secondary cast.

Jake says of Harry's writing, "It doesn't feed you. It feeds on you." The same is true for this nonstop dialogue: As the characters converse, they come unglued, and we as the audience become eavesdroppers. We are obliged to participate as if we were listening in on a conversation at the Laundromat. Besides Lewis's top-notch writing, what really saves Chinese Coffee from falling into cliché is the outstanding trio of director Joe Adler and actors Gioia and Tei.

Like GableStage's widely acclaimed Popcorn (also starring Tei), Chinese Coffee is a play that could be successfully realized on-stage or in front of the camera. In fact, Al Pacino played one of the roles in 1992 and then directed himself and his costar, Jerry Orbach, in a yet-to-be-released Fox Searchlight film of the same name, also penned by Lewis. Adler's character-driven directing style elicits multiple responses from Tei and Gioia. Each maintains a persona and then gradually shreds it without fully abandoning it.

Harry appears to be on a nonstop Xanax trip. He is wired, depressed, and obsessive. He's constantly chattering, challenging, and probing; he scratches his balls and rummages through Jake's empty refrigerator -- all appropriate to his character. Now in his sixth play at GableStage, Tei has reached a new level of skill in Chinese Coffee. At one moment cagey, weak, and vulnerable, he is at the same time passionate. His character's vulnerability is a labyrinth of insecurity and fervor. Together, Adler and Tei have crafted the quintessential artist -- neurotic, insecure, self-absorbed but also resolute in his struggle to defend the validity of his work.

Back to the stage after several years' hiatus, Gioia is incredibly powerful as the world-weary Jake. Gioia's excellent control of voice and mood almost threatens to overshadow a more subtle but brilliant aspect of his performance: his silence. His facial expressions along with Jeff Quinn's subtle lighting become a constant subplot, an untold story that is deeply rooted in this vitriolic encounter. When Harry confronts Jake on the true motive for criticizing his work so harshly, his nonverbal presence becomes monolithic and even frightening.

This is a play about values -- the value of a writer's effort, the value of something that has not attained commercial success. Then the flipside: What happens to the artistic value of creativity when it becomes monetarily quantified? It is also a portrait of human nature that is rarely so well portrayed in the plethora of movies and plays where an ethical question is at the crux of the matter -- both characters are incredibly sincere, mistaken, broken, and pliant.

How to make an hour and a half of two men arguing not look like a mere battle of wits or duel of words? Get an intelligent and poignant script and two excellent actors and get them up on GableStage.

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Mia Leonin