Fort Worth — A man and a woman in a motel room during a blizzard.
So, yes, there’s going to be sex—both full-out and handsy—but sex is only the starting gun for Thomas Ward’s piercingly funny-sad play International Falls, about a burning-out comedian and a hotel desk clerk who meet at a crossroads in their lives.
It’s full of crackling humor and aching sadness—and in the intimate setting of Stage West’s new studio space, we can’t help getting close to these characters. There’s nowhere to look, nowhere to go except straight into their troubled hearts.
Playwright Ward and his real-life wife Sherry Jo Ward play the two characters, Tim and Dee, just as they did when International Falls debuted at 2012’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. Since then, it’s played in Portland and Minneapolis, and had a New York run with the Greyman Theatre Company in 2014. Stage West’s production is directed by Garret Storms, who with Nate Davis put together the convincingly motel-roomy set.
Ward has written some sharp and funny lines for these two, and to say the comedy lands in unusual places is no lie. We hear jokes about Lutherans and substitute teachers, jokes about “dick jokes” and hotel curtains—and jokes about the (apparently trending?) porn fantasy called CFNM (Clothed Female Naked Male). “Ooh, look at the shoes on her,” leers Tim, just imagining the turn-on.
In fact, Dee keeps clothes and boots on for most of the night, while Tim wears nothing but a pair of too-snug boxers—vulnerability, anyone?—even while he does bits of his stand-up act at a mike set above the stage. He says (it’s a joke) that he’s channeling a 16-year old girl: insecure, self-obsessed, always comparing and coming up short. Tim’s been on the road and away from his wife and young son “way too long”, and he’s not on the way up. His unseen manager books him into one comedy hellhole after another. “Does your tour have a name?” asks Dee with a grin.
Dee has her own reasons for being in Tim’s room—and only one of them is her interest in taking up comedy herself. She’s reading a how-to book (“No, not a book!” Tim protests), and he offers tips from his 16 years of experience: “Go to open mikes, get real mediocre” and you can be just as successful as he is. Later on, their relationship and his advice get more real: “Don’t avoid anything.” Use it all in your comedy, he says, even the “terrible shit.”
We learn more about Dee’s life, but Tim’s status keeps us guessing to the end. Is he really this sad and bored, Dee asks, or is it all part of the comic schtick? We get to like Dee, who’s given a spunky, true-grit performance by (Ms.) Ward, who shows us a good heart in a heart-wrenching situation. But we outright kind of love Tim, who is played by (Mr.) Ward with plenty of shy charm and LOL wit. He’s a warm guy in a cold room, and we’re sad that he’s so funny with Dee and so, well, average at the mike. “You’ve been a real…crowd,” he tells the Holiday Inn audience, and that about sums it up.
International Falls will hit you harder—in the funny bone and in the gut—than you expect. And it’s a lesson in the basic job of playwriting: to put characters onstage, and make us give a damn about their fate.