A Lot of Life
A Lot of Life is a Buck Busfield play in a December slot rather than a holiday show. There’s not a Christmas tree in sight, though the story’s upbeat ending is doubtless intended to go down easy given the season.
The play opens as a situation comedy, with a confrontation between an old Italian (played by Christopher Thomas) who runs a failing little hardware store and a brusque developer (Loren Taylor) who wants to build a gigantic home improvement center right next door. The developer wants some of the old Italian’s surplus property for a parking lot. The scene plays out through a series of verbal feints and ripostes, as the old Italian first denies his own identity, then claims not to have read the developer’s letters.
Subsequent scenes introduce the old Italian’s daughter—a pretty 20-something (Dana Brooke) who has looked after her dad since the old man’s spouse passed away nine years ago. She’s wants to get out on her own, and informs the old man that she’s invited over a young man for dinner.
A comic character drops in—a kooky, short of stature and, more significantly, single neighbor (Jeff Asch) who charges around with the energy of the puppy dogs that populate his household. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to anticipate that he’s got a crush on the girl.
These personalities bounce off each other in pleasant but sometimes superficial comic dialogue through the play’s first half, without advancing the story very much. Busfield springs a surprise just before intermission—a plot development that you may be able to anticipate if you’re concentrating on where the story might be leading.
The play changes gears in the second half as the dreams held by literally every character in the story come into conflict, and to varying extents, fade. It’s almost as though Busfield had shifted his mode to one of those late Shakespearean romances—the play’s title being a hint in this regard. There is nothing Shakespearean about Busfield’s language, but the play becomes the sort of story in which fate abruptly and unexpectedly intervenes, problems aren’t so much solved as dissolved by a change in outlook, and setbacks are taken into stride while family relationships are restored.
There are a few logic lapses—Busfield might want to rethink the continuity of an accident that sends one character to the hospital. And the moment at which the old Italian sees his way out of his dilemmas occurs offstage—we hear about it when he tells the developer what he’s done. A more visible transformation might strengthen the ending.
Thomas, a veteran actor from Los Angeles, is dour in many scenes as the old Italian, clinging to the past. Brooke, as in past roles, radiates charm, though she raises her voice a little too often during arguments. Taylor, as the developer, is the heavy, but also displays some sympathetic attributes. Asch is bubbly and enthusiastic as the lovable guy who will probably never get a wife. Neil Howard rounds out the cast; he’s good as the daughter’s boyfriend.
On the spectrum of Busfield’s plays (we’ve seen seven or eight of them at the B Street), this one falls somewhere toward the middle, but in the upper half. It’s quieter and less dramatic than this year’s Beneath the Moon, Beyond the Stars, but it’s that way on purpose.