A group of friends have gathered to drink beers and smoke buds under the powerlines in suburban Massachusetts in remembrance of their friend Justin, who died under mysterious circumstances at the end of high school. Now, thirteen years later, they have made their anniversary pilgrimage to a spot by a cliff in the shadow of electrical transmission towers, to party in remembrance of him.
But tonight will be different.
Joey (Nat Cassidy), a successful Hollywood writer with a famous singer girlfriend Gretyl Barnes (Lori E. Parquet) and the only member to make it out, has returned as with a proposition. Joey wants to know how Justin really died, and he’s willing to give a brand new Porsche to the one who can tell him. But Stu (Matt Archambault) doesn’t want Joey to learn their innermost stories about Justin. Stu says Joey is a sellout who used his friends’ lives to get rich in Hollywood, and Stu is sick of having his life appropriated without getting the spoils.
The story takes a hard turn when Stu and the gang decide to kidnap Gretyl in return for the money Stu says Joey owes them. Imagine The Big Chill with characters from The Departed and plot twists from Pretty Little Liars. But the plot is secondary to the telling of the story, which has all the richness and poetic fancy that I have come to expect from playwright August Schulenberg. Justin, when he was alive, had a secret power over each of them. Justin’s power, the unseen center of the play, the unmoved mover, is the power of metaphor and memory, his — and by extension his friends’ — poetic imagination.
The title “Honey Fist” plays on the nickname of famous Bostonian and Massachusetts elder statesman John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (a poor Irish immigrant, Mayor of Boston and US congressman, as well as the maternal grandfather of US president John F. Kennedy) and the sensation of invulnerability some of the characters experienced in the company of Justin, himself a charismatic — nearly messianic, and most certainly Christlike — leader. As the stories unfold we get a picture of a person whose warm personality covers his associates with a sweet, golden glow. Like Honey Fitz, Justin is the elder statesman to his group of friends. Justin’s tragedy flows from the intense, almost addictive feeling his love produces — and the emptiness Justin feels after he has delivered the honey.
Mr. Schulenberg has a gift for poetry and an ear for the vernacular speech of the Massachusettsans he portrays. The first fifteen minutes of Honey Fist are dazzling in their fidelity to the rhythms of greater Boston speech and their subtle wit, inflected with working class, gallows humor. The characters are carefully drawn, even when their language becomes densely metaphorical. The actors (including Anna Rahn, Isaiah Tanenbaum, and Chinaza Uche) do a fine job of maintaining their accents through the bumptious plot twists that career from mystery to comedy to tragedy and back again in the first act. In the second act, the show takes a somber turn when Gretyl returns to find out the real truth about what happened to Justin the night he died. In the end, it’s a happy story, even if the denouement lacks a little of the surprise punch one may expect in a murder mystery. You may not notice (or care) given the overall quality of the performance.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this work is not the sweetness of an individual personality but the sweetness of nostalgia. The memory of a dead lover or the fantasy of a road not taken does more to motivate these characters than their present lives, which are lived almost exclusively in the past. And so the ending is bittersweet: life with Honey Fist’s memory is tolerable, and it is perhaps preferable to life with him in the all-too-mortal flesh.
This is the last week! At 4th Street Theater