THEATER | New Theatre Group’s “The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell of Columbus, Nebraska” bugs you—in a good way

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The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell of Columbus, Nebraska leaves me feeling the same way most of the characters feel about the debate: conflicted.

On the one hand, the part of me that craves theater that’s new and different and intriguing is totally on board with New Theatre Group’s mission of either creating brand-spanking new work from scratch (as they’ve been doing in the Minnesota Fringe Festival the last several years), or bringing the pre-existing work of local playwrights to the stage (as they’re doing here). Brian Balcom is a great director of new plays, and his enthusiasm for local playwrights is infectious.

On the other hand, while I’ve loved some of New Theatre Group’s work, I’ve also been less than thrilled with other productions. One outing in the latter category was another script by Courtney O’Connell‘s playwright Mat Smart, entitled A Standing Long Jump, in the 2010 Fringe. While I’ll give all kinds of latitude for a script that’s hot off the word processor and still in the actors’ hands during performance, I can’t say it was one of my favorites in last year’s Fringe.

So I came into Courtney O’Connell cautiously optimistic, as I do any New Theatre Group production.

The audience has to be willing to buy into the basic concept, which one of the characters rightly describes as “backward, and a little sexist.” According to the Morgan Morality Act of 1894, a man in Nebraska who has deflowered a young woman may challenge her new suitor to a debate for her hand. Taking a woman’s virginity apparently establishes prior claim on her person. The young woman makes the final decision on who wins the debate (thank God for that, at least). If the challenger loses, however, he must abjure all future contact with the woman (and to spare his friends, also make no further mention of her going forward).

Scott P. Hooner (a.k.a. “Scooner,” played by Robert Galligan) decides to use this gambit to win back his former girlfriend of five years Courtney O’Connell (Rachel Finch) from the man she has recently agreed to marry, James Hamilton (Christopher Kehoe). Scooner’s best friend Tim (Shad Cooper), a reporter for the local newspaper, agrees to act as moderator for the proceedings. Yes, this is actually taking place in 2011. Apparently, Scooner’s mother begged Courtney and James to go along with this scenario because Scooner’s been more than a little depressed and suicidal since Courtney left him a year ago. This is all played for laughs but still…dark. Not bad, not unfunny, just…dark.

The men take turns answering five key questions with a chance for rebuttal. At the end of the five questions, Courtney will decide. So there are three ways this thing can go: she chooses James, she chooses Scooner, or she’s unable to choose. I won’t spoil the ending, or the little twist that comes just before, but suffice it to say that the play accounts for all three of these potential outcomes. Just like live theater in general is never the same twice becasue the audience is always different, this play depends on the makeup of the audience and their shifting loyalties between Courtney’s two men to arrive at its conclusion each night.

The Bryant-Lake Bowl space is used inventively here. The company deliberately closes off the bulk of the back seating area so the audience is forced close to the action on stage. There’s a fair amount of pre-show wandering through the house and banter by the characters as they wait for other characters to arrive. The back windows on the stage, which provide a view of the traffic on the sidewalk and Lake Street, are wide open at the play’s start. Characters also burst in and out of the back door of the stage and onto the sidewalk, allowing befuddled passersby a chance to gawk, which is also enormously entertaining. The Bryant-Lake Bowl theater has rarely seemed bigger, or more a part of the outside world, rather than an escape from it, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The debate questions are:

Why are you the best man for Courtney O’Connell?

How would you assist Courtney in paying off her student loans, and with what standard of living would you be able to provide her?

What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made with Courtney O’Connell, and how would you handle things differently now?

If you had to sing a song for Courtney O’Connell, what would it be?

What would you do without Courtney O’Connell?

Both guys (and the actors portraying them) make a case for themselves. James is sort of a no-brainer as a romantic catch: he’s responsible, well-dressed, makes a good salary, and genuinely loves Courtney and is not afraid to say it (or put up with bizarre debate situations on her behalf). Scooner, though a bit of a schlub in both dress and career prospects, clearly pines for Courtney, is willing to admit his mistakes, and is, let’s face it, desperate enough to try this debate as a Hail Mary play to win her back. And though even Scooner’s buddy Tim can occasionally get drawn in by James’s charm, the fact that Scooner warrants such devotion from a friend is another point in his favor.

The challenge of the play for the audience is that we can only go with the information presented to us. The debate format limits this information. The play, to its credit, manages to use this debate with only minor digressions from the rules to paint a fairly complete picture of Courtney’s relationships with both men. The audience can see why she’s drawn to both, and checks in with her frequently to see how she’s taking in the information in the debate answers, trying to figure out which way she’s leaning.

But there’s a big piece of missing information here. Why did Courtney and Scooner split? Courtney doesn’t seem like an unfeeling bitch. She didn’t meet James until almost a year after her breakup with Scooner, so it’s not like she left one man for the other. Given Scooner’s general demeanor, it’s clear he must have done something. Without knowing what it is, the audience naturally leans away from Scooner and toward James. The laws and expectations of romantic comedy yank us the other way – who doesn’t want to see the guy redeem himself and get the girl back? But we honestly don’t know whether he deserves to win or not. It’s not a simple matter of being torn. We don’t want to feel like Courtney is making the wrong decision, either way she goes. The characters know significant things that we in the audience do not. While it keeps the play unpredictable, it also makes it hard to invest in the characters or their relationships.

I saw the play go one way on opening night. It would be interesting to see how the other potential endings play out. Because right now, I’m not sure what Mat Smart is trying to say to me with this play. He doesn’t make any decisions, and he doesn’t give the audience the full information they’d need to evaluate the various options and agree or disagree. The play is clearly more than just an exercise. It’s more than a gimmick. More of what, I’m honestly not sure. If you’re going to make Courtney—and by extension, the audience—decide, then what are the consequences of those decisions? I’ll grant you, the characters here are infinitely more engaging and less infuriating than those in A Standing Long Jump. But in some ways, they’re just as opaque and unknowable.

I’m not saying I need a tidy fairy-tale ending. In fact, I enjoyed the emotional messiness of the ending we got on opening night. And you’ve gotta love a play that would use the line “Mr. Snuggles is dead.” But there’s still a few too many unknowns in the mix for it to be completely satisfying.

Plays are a conversation between a playwright and an audience, between storyteller and those being told.

Please. Talk to me.

Meantime, The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell of Columbus, Nebraska is certainly like nothing else on any other Twin Cities stage at the moment. That alone makes it worth a visit. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it bugs you (in a good way).

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