High school reunions can be bittersweet occasions. Old friends gather. They share photos and reminisce. And they decide how to bomb the FBI.
In The Muscles in Our Toes, Stephen Belber’s new shouty, banter-heavy comedy, a clandestine group of alums gathers in the choir practice room. Down the hall, their former classmates celebrate 25 years of adulthood, but these reunited buddies focus mostly on collective action. One of their clique, now a sneaker-company magnate, has apparently been kidnapped by a terrorist group in Chad. To help free him, these folks want to wage a violent protest over unfair “detention policies.” That’s government detention, not the kind administered by the principal’s office. (It’s one of Belber’s better running jokes.)
The gang’s giddy conspiracy hatches before any women show up, after a couple of cocktails. The drinks unleash other, long-suppressed feelings, too. Belber shows us how their plan — not a pragmatic or strategic one — is ultimately a twisted and belated solution to their adolescent social anxieties and sexual insecurities. What better way to prove their stature as friends and as men?
Dante (Mather Zickel), a square-jawed banker with a big mouth and a yen for confrontation, fires up his aging pals. “Where did that activist in you go?” he bullies them. Phil (Matthew Maher) might be up for adventure: He has come out of the closet with a vengeance and now chafes at his dull job as an education consultant. (“Vouchers rock my cock,” he informs his compatriots sardonically.) Mild-mannered Reg (Amir Arison) has qualms about attacking the feds: He’s a public employee, for one thing, and has Persian roots for another.
Though it’s essentially sitcom material, Belber’s dialogue sometimes spirals into funny verbal arpeggios. The cast struggles with the chewy lines, but there are witty sweet spots: The guys dream up amusingly elaborate insults for one another’s anatomies, and Belber writes a demented aria of alcoholic self-pity for the divorcee Carrie. (Jeanine Serralles plays her neurotic meltdown with perfect oversexed mania.)
As a play, however, The Muscles in Our Toes is immensely overwritten, asking its audience to invest too much in what feels like a very long sketch. Digressions — such as a heated debate over whether gays are more or less likely to turn terrorist — hold far more comic interest than major dramatic revelations, which land with a thud. Many scenes repeat earlier antics, and when these quarrelers finally decide to create a fake hostage video (Plan B), their improv-gone-very-wrong doesn’t quite become the culminating absurdity the script needs.
In Anne Kauffman’s staging, we can hear Simple Minds and other strains of the reunion’s ’80s-nostalgia soundtrack whenever the hallway door swings open — reminders, maybe, that teenage head space always hovers nearby. Belber’s high-strung adults revert to old, sophomoric roles quickly and wholly; they express affection through ribbing and destroy their rivals with incessant innuendo (about who may have given or gotten a blow job back in the day).
Whether in adolescence or in middle age, it’s a fluid line between camaraderie and resentment, Belber seems to say. At any age we ricochet between feeling powerful and feeling useless, between belonging and exclusion when we’re thrown into group situations. Late in the play, Dante makes an impassioned speech about the power of friendship, but these disillusioned adults aren’t especially convinced — and neither are we. The Muscles in Our Toes has lighthearted moments but is least persuasive when it attempts to reschool us.