Like Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s modernist stage classic “Waiting for Godot,” Donnie and Raymond are two men seemingly trapped in a limited space with nothing to do but talk.
Unlike Beckett’s enigmatic characters, Sean Christopher Lewis’ duo in “Manning Up” — which will receive a regional premiere Nov. 7 to Dec. 9 at the Salt Lake Acting Company — aren’t biding their time for the arrival of some unspoken realization. They’re waiting for their wives to give birth.
“I’m wearing this stopwatch all the time,” says Donnie near the play’s beginning. “I wanted to practice the contractions the other day by myself and I started hyperventilating. I don’t even know where I’m supposed to go. Like my head’s on a swivel. Like … I’m gonna have a heart attack.”
But as the two men in their 30s joke, cavil and obsess in their basement “man cave,” they fumble toward some hard truths as their pregnant wives tend to business upstairs. Fears are unloaded and confronted. Their jabs and anecdotes seem funny, until their subcontext is revealed. Thinking back to their childhoods at the hands of their own fathers, they feel the tables turning even before their children are born.
As the reality of parenthood looms, Donnie and Raymond realize it’s already redefining their conceptions of self and the larger world. Call it the contractions of manhood as it transforms — kicking and screaming — into full-fledged fatherhood.
The second production in Salt Lake Acting Company’s 42nd season, “Manning Up” doesn’t qualify, in scale, as epic theater. But if the chamber piece lacks in size and visual grandeur, there are compensations in depth and passion, said Cynthia Fleming, the company’s co-executive producer. “This is men unplugged,” Fleming said.
“Manning Up” premiered this spring at Actors’ Summit theater in Akron, Ohio, and, just last month, at Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre. The play is part of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theater companies that champions and develops new plays.
Lewis, a full-time playwright, director and artistic director of Iowa City’s Working Group Theatre, said “Manning Up” was sparked by discussions he had with his wife and other friends who were pregnant.
“My wife and I are in what we call ‘the long discussion,’ ” Lewis said from his home in Iowa. “It’s a longer discussion than I actually ever knew it was. … My personal fears, combined with watching my friends, became the play.”
Although he is not yet a parent, Lewis’ play itself is a sort of child in that everyone who sees it responds and interacts with it in different ways. Some audience members find the main characters, sitting in their sports-equipment adorned basement, too stereotyped toward men. People laugh, or wince knowingly, at some lines more than others. But most playgoers will identify with the anxiety and humor that engulf Donnie and Raymond as the dialogue progresses.
“Humor allows you to hear things in a different way, allows us to pay attention a little bit more,” Lewis said. “It invites us, as opposed to when something is said just bluntly.”
Utah-based actors Lanny Langston, who plays Donnie, and Jesse Peery, who plays Raymond, expected to identify with their characters. But as rehearsals progressed, both were surprised at how deep that identification grew.
“It goes to the extreme of how uncommunicative men often are, then unwraps that humanity as they talk not only to each other, but talk about their wives,” Peery said.
Langston said the play catches men in that rare instance when they’re faced with a situation that demands they change, or not, according to circumstances. “It’s crunch time, when you feel compelled to assess who you are and where you came from,” he said.
Tracy Callahan, who directs the production, said that though the play is a microcosm of sorts, she gave Langston and Peery wide freedom to discover its resonances. It’s not every day you get to direct a play that takes place in a “man cave,” said Callahan, an associate professor of theater at Weber State University.
“There’s enough psychological stuff they throw at the wall to make you forget where it’s all happening,” Callahan said. “Women are going to have a really interesting time watching this.”
When • Nov. 7-Dec. 9, Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company’s Chapel Theater, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Info • $15-$38. Call 801-363-SLAC or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.