For just over an hour, Barret O’Brien’s new play, Eating Round the Bruise, deftly slides from one social commentary to another, a succession of equally humorous and serious solo scenes that show ordinary people coming slowly unglued. Then, a crippled panhandler takes the stage and asks an unseen bystander for a dollar bill in exchange for four quarters. The character’s ensuing conversation wraps the entire play together, pulling each of the previous scenes together under one unifying message.
“Like that bad fruit, man,” says the panhandler. “We all chomping away, pretending there ain’t this big ugly bruise right in the center of our lovely apple. Eating ’round, man, and just leaving that dark spot standing there like a skyscraper in the desert. Bite into it, that’s what I say. A bruise just as good for you as the sweet stuff, just taste different.”
The day following the first dress rehearsal of Bruise, an original work making its world debut with Montana Rep Missoula, O’Brien explains the motivations that went into writing the script. The award-winning playwright and accomplished actor of stage and screen—O’Brien is also one of only two performers in the play—has called Missoula home for the last year, and most of his new work was composed here.
“The question that the play poses is, what if in a public place one day you can’t hold it in anymore and you point out that bruise?” O’Brien says. “What happens? How does that upset the social structure we’ve created? There’s often, in many aspects of our life, this really dark thing that no one is saying anything about, no one’s reacting to it, and no one’s really even pointing out.”
O’Brien’s play bites directly into bad fruit, but it does so without being preachy or overt. The setup is eight scenes, all but one featuring a single actor on stage at a time. O’Brien plays four different male characters and Teresa Waldorf, a veteran of the Missoula theater scene for the last 15 years, plays five separate female roles. There is a television reporter struggling to film a segment for the evening news, a civics teacher confronting an apathetic class after the presidential election, and a frequent flyer trying desperately to correct a mistaken reservation. Each character is self-deprecating enough to be sympathetic and neurotic enough to be a little creepy—but neither characteristic prevails. It’s human that way.
Given the structure of the play, it’s tempting to think of it as a series of monologues, and technically the term may apply. But as O’Brien is quick to point out, a monologue is when a single person speaks alone, with the connotation that it’s an insular moment. By comparison, the characters in Bruise are interacting, we just aren’t allowed to see with whom. The audience is forced to be a voyeur of one. There is no set design, and the few props and costumes are basic. With the surroundings thus suppressed, the audience can’t help but watch as each layer of the character falls away.
“You can see any of these characters either falling right back into their daily patterns, continuing with their life and never doing anything like this again. Or, you can see this as being a major turning point in their life,” O’Brien says. “But from there on out you have no idea what this moment is going to mean to their life. I like it like that.”
O’Brien is a native of New Orleans and spent three years working in New York as both an actor and playwright before coming west. As a writer, he’s been honored with a Southern critics award for best original play, was published in the 2003 Smith and Krause anthology New American Playwrights: The Best Plays, and an excerpt from Bruise was recently included in another Smith and Krause anthology, Best Monologues of 2004. As an actor, O’Brien had some success with film (a speaking role in Runaway Jury) and television (a three-episode stint on “Dawson’s Creek”), but his biggest accomplishments have been in live theater. His mother, also a playwright and currently teaching in Ithaca, N.Y., created Southern Rep in New Orleans when O’Brien was 13, and he started acting shortly after. In 1998, he successfully launched American Dog, his own production company in the city—an effort that incorporated live rock music, movies and puppets with traditional theater—to rave reviews. Earlier this year, when O’Brien returned to his hometown to play the lead in a new work, the city’s largest newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, placed him on the cover of it’s entertainment insert under the banner headline “Barret is Back.”
Despite his time in the Big Easy and the Big Apple, O’Brien has transitioned well to Big Sky Country. He certainly plays the part of a native convincingly—he works for a local nonprofit, has a dog by his side most of the day, can often be seen riding his bike around town, and does a lot of his writing at local coffee shops.
“I still have my tentacles out there,” O’Brien says. “In theater, I think you have to keep yourself active and available to travel or show work. But Missoula is now my home. My house is here. My dog is here.”
Greg Johnson, artistic director of the Montana Rep and a professor at UM, envisioned a perfect fit for O’Brien when he learned of his arrival. Montana Rep Missoula, a local version of the national touring operation, did not have anything slotted for its spring performance when Johnson had dinner with O’Brien last fall.
“Certain things you just know,” says Johnson, who directs Bruise. “We had dinner, then we had tea, and I read the script. You know quality writing when you read it…I had the opportunity to do a lot of original work when I was in New York, but it’s harder to do here. And then, here is Barret O’Brien—a playwright moves to town.”
Bruise manages to be current, funny and important. It’s rare when a performance forces you to laugh and then think—and much more of the latter in the sense that O’Brien’s inventive and intimate looks at common topics (dating, politics, obesity, sex) are something to chew on well beyond the theater. Everything O’Brien writes, he says, includes the elements of everyday humor and darkness.
“If I try to present something without either of those two factors, I find it shallow,” he says. “Sometimes not knowing how to classify it—is this a comedy or is this…?—knowing you laughed a lot and still having a lot to talk about when you go home, I think that’s what I look for when I write.”
Montana Rep Missoula presents Eating Round the Bruise at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, April 21, through Saturday, April 23. The play stars Barret O’Brien and Teresa Waldorf, features original music by Scott Filbin and is directed by Greg Johnson. Tickets cost $10 (or $8 with student ID) and shows begin each night at 8 PM.