Michigan residents walking into the Tipping Point Theatre for the next few weeks will instantly feel at home. The faux pine paneling, the wood steps with 2’x4’ framing, the vintage refrigerator, old school radio and worn furniture all point to the manly lair of a Michigan basement. This is the tiny, true-to-life world captured in “The Kings of Unionville.”
In his program notes, TPT’s Artistic Director James R. Kuhl talks about how, as a young artist serving an apprenticeship at the Purple Rose Theatre, he was struck by the way Jeff Daniels’ plays spoke directly to the Michigan audience. And that became the inspiration for this play – written by Kuhl and set entirely in the basement of a home in "Unionville," Michigan – where six men play euchre, drink beer, and discover a few secrets that will either drive them apart or bring them closer together.
There is something exciting and scary about seeing a World Premiere, especially when it is written by an artist whose work in other areas we especially admire. James R. Kuhl is known to most of us as a gifted actor and director with an impressive list of credits. We are happy to report that “talented playwright” can officially be added to his resume. Although Kuhl’s guys drink beer, play eucher and indulge in low-brow jokes, this comedy offers a fresh and honest glimpse into the complicated relationships between fathers and sons. Kuhl’s characters teach us something about the importance of traditions, however silly, the legacy of family history, however modest, and the power of binding friendships, however flawed the friends.
The friends, in this case, are the male offspring of the once prominent Secret Society of Kings, formed in the late 1800s by Unionville’s founding fathers. With even the youngest surviving members now hitting 60, the group has deteriorated into a glorified card party dedicated to the massive consumption of beer. Ed, the group historian and only member with an adult son, proposes that his boy Will be admitted into the Kings of Unionville brotherhood. The other men readily agree, but are stunned when Ed demands that his son Will undergo a long forgotten initiation ritual. Why does Ed require that his son be proved “worthy” of a group that clearly has no standards? We quickly realize that it has something to do with the barrier that keeps Ed and Will from having the easy relationship they both clearly want.
"The Kings of Unionville" is a compelling story and a delightful comedy. Director Brian P. Sage (himself a popular and gifted local actor) unpacks the humor in this script in a briskly paced but unforced manner that helps frame up its more dramatic moments. “The thing I love about this production is that it examines male relationships and friendships from a fairly unique perspective,” says Sage. “We see male relationships explored in buddy comedies, plays and films about sports figures and sports teams; father/son relationships are often explored in some of our heavier drama’s, but playwright James R. Kuhl uses a deteriorating small town fraternal organization as the frame for his examination of these types of relationships and its really fascinating how poignant and universal it is. I recognize these people from my life.”
We can’t imagine a better cast than the six men who become for us the Kings of Unionville. John Seibert is Ed, the brusque, demanding and disciplined father of Will, played by true-life son Joseph Seibert. They have some very fine scenes together in which they reveal how "what it means to be a man and father" has changed from one generation to the next. And it is fascinating to see that the younger Seibert has in fact learned much from the father.
Dave Davies and Phil Powers are hilarious as the doofus duo of brothers who offer most of the play’s humor and a redeeming dash of compassion. Davies does a killer Columbo impression, neatly tagged with an allusion to “The Princess Bride.” Powers manages to pull back just enough on his comedic performance to convince us that, of the two brothers, he may not actually be smarter, but he is clearly less dumb. Quinton Hicks, as Hoagie, is by comparison a more literate and thoughtful member of the boys’ club whose cheerful and optimistic outlook complements and balances the more intense Ed. Thomas D. Mahard plays Lloyd, the eldest member of the group and the voice of the previous generation of Kings. Lloyd represents the voice of experience, and Mahard gives him a friendly sort of gravitas that is continuously undermined by the barrage of ageist jokes lobbed his way.
The convincing basement is the work of set designer Bartley Bauer, with lighting by Joel Klain, props by Brandon M. Newton, sound by Quintessa Gallinat (I covet this soundtrack of ‘70s classics), and costumes by Colleen Ryan-Peters (loved Guvy’s International-Harvester belt buckle). Tracy L. Spada is the Resident Stage Manager and Ryan Fisher is the Assistant Stage Manager.
Women need not be put off by the strong male themes in this play. It is a most entertaining comedy. And more than that, it is at heart an essential story about parents and children – normal people – and the little moments that make big differences in their lives.
“The Kings Of Unionville” runs through August 24, 2014 at Tipping Point Theatre. The curtain rises at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. A special matinee performance has been added on Wednesday, August 13, 2014. Tickets are $29 to $32 for adults and $27 to $30 for students /senior citizens and are available by calling the box office at 248-347-0003.
The theatre is located at 361 E. Cady St. in charming downtown Northville.