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Steppin Up

Denver Center Theater Company swings for the fences with 1933



It was a bad year. A bad country for a pitcher who hadn't thrown a pitch since October. Or so we're told by a narrator reclining on the shores of Malibu as he casts his mind back to his Depression-era youth in Colorado's foothills. We can forgive him for missing the point that a bad day in the Rockies is a virtual oxymoron when southern California is the basis for comparison. We forgive him if only because he's got it right that everything's better with baseballs in it.

The Denver Center Theater Company's world premiere production of 1933 is ostensibly all about baseball and primarily set in Boulder. Set designer G.W. Mercier and projection designer Jan Hartley create some stunning stage scenes out of a series of white panels that are miraculously transformed through the projection of historic photographs, warming the unsuspecting audience as we watch the snow drifting across the upstage Flat Irons like hushed confetti, returning in our mind to an age of flake testing and snow forts in place of traffic delays and heating bills. The ever-changing backdrops to the action ground us comfortably in the romanticized past of our homeland, even when the play seems occasionally oblivious of the significance of its setting.

The play is adapted from John Fant's novel 1933 Was a Bad Year by DCTC resident playwright and director Randal Myler and veteran DCTC producer Brockman Seawell. Myler's past writing credits include the Tony-nominated It Ain't Nothing But the Blues, Lost Highway, Appalachian Strings, and Love, Janis, all of which premiered at DCTC. He does a fine job of bringing Fant's story to the stage as a dramatist, honing in on the coming-of-age story of a seventeen-year-old trying to escape the Depression and his inheritance as a brick layer for the prospect of pitching for the Chicago Cubs.

As the play's director, however, Myler lets a minor flaw slip into the on-stage implementation of an idea that was well-executed on the page. The decision to bring a narrator to life--using the play's principle character as an old man looking back some fifty years after the action--is a worthy effort to preserve Fant's evocative, descriptive language, but the performance of Yusef Bulos in the role is affected to the point of distraction, actually impeding the rhythms of the language and leaving the audience with the sense that an unnecessary intruder stands between them and the play. It's difficult to see any through line between Bryant Richards' interpretation of Dom as an emerging young man and Bulos' portrayal of him at the other end of his life. Perhaps this is meant as an intentional comment about how completely Dom breaks with the world of his youth, but the audience's credulity is stretched a bit too tautly.

There's something for everyone in 1933, whether you're looking for pre-season baseball, a first-love story, treatments of Italian immigrants, Catholicism, or pre-People's Republic Boulderism, but ultimately the story dramatizes a crisis of integrity and class conflict. Dom's got the best left arm anyone in Boulder has ever seen, but he's also got a domineering practical-minded father and an abiding faith in Jesus--what else could explain his slider and his knuckleball?--that is complicated by unexplained visions of the Virgin Mary (or was it Carol Lombard?) appearing over his bed one night.

Most importantly, Dom's got a best friend from the upscale side of town, affluent enough to entertain idle dreams of heading to Catalina for a big league tryout. For Dom to secure the $50 needed for the trip would take nothing less than divine intervention. His family's net worth wouldn't add up to the gas money, and his only other option is to employ unethical means to achieve what he believes is a certain and justifiable end.

The relationship between Dom and his friend Ken is easily overshadowed by the father-son relationship crucial to Dom's quest for manhood, but Ken is a vital foil to push Dom toward a turning-point conflict that his father would otherwise stifle out of the economic necessity of preserving the stagnant quo. Richards and Michael Twist as Ken give exquisitely tuned performances to accent this conflict. Richards' Dom is sporadically confident in his pitches, consistently frustrated with the dead-end prospects of life in a wasteland burg of 10,000 lesser souls, and slowly suffocating in the claustrophobic confines of his family. Richards balances these complications with an engaging wide-eyed youthful wonder that captures both the idealized nature of memory and the elegant lyricism of Fant's language.

Twist's subtle performance as Ken is filled with the beautiful moments that are difficult to pinpoint but that come together to create a powerful representation of a character unconscious of the fences that isolate him within his affluent world. Perhaps it's the slight increase in the angle at which he holds his nose. Certainly it's in part a product of a script that carefully calculates the cost of personal integrity, emphasizing the ease with which difficult decisions can be made when your born with a silver safety net surrounding you.

The other key performance is Mike Genovese's complicated turn as Peter, Dom's father. We recognize the easily identifiable character deficiencies of an often absent father who drinks too much and has too many women friends. But Genovese's closely controlled characterization withholds more than it releases, keeping the reins on whatever elusive element it is that allows Dom to maintain a forgivingly clouded vision of his father. When Peter finally turns late in the play, it is the most significant character development of any of the play's population. Again, Genovese's craft comes in the self-control that regulates his character's speech and movement, letting no one inside but still finding a gesture with which to finally communicate with his son.

One of the best qualities of this play is that it is not an homage to the hard work that pays off in fulfilled dreams. Rarely are these youthful attempts to reach the stars consummated. Most of our dreams we don't even remember. But we go through hell in the reaching. 1933 honors that journey, misdirected, ill-conceived, doomed from the start, but ennobled by the necessary challenges it forces us to confront as we summon the courage to stand in the ranks of so many beautiful losers.

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