By Kevin Nance
There's some spring cleaning going on at the Belcourt Theatre. Stuff, Nashville playwright Jim Reyland's promising new play which opened in a fully staged workshop version by b.scott Productions last night, is a cathartic purging, a clearing out of emotional clutter between two old Army buddies with a shared history of trouble.
Even though it's still a work in progress, this production of Stuff, directed by Barry Scott with Kimberley LaMarque, is entertaining, fast paced and emotionally fearless. It steadily uncovers the inner lives and buried conflicts of the two friends who are hired to clear out the junk that has accumulated in an old theater before it's turned into a cinema (the Belcourt itself, which shines in what amounts to a starring, if silent, role) by a harried businessman (Ed Haggard).
Scott gives a big, blustery yet nuanced performance as Bobby, a black man who clearly cares for his gay friend Milton (Matt Carlton) even as he's plagued with regular outbreaks of homophobia. Alternating waves of tenderness, fear, love and revulsion - and what might be guilt over his own role in an anti gay attack on Milton years ago - wash over Scott's face and voice. It's fascinating to watch.
So is Carlton, whose Milton bounces between states of neediness and anger. He's damaged goods, but his power to forget - and, ultimately, to forgive - turns out to be Bobby's saving grace.
Even so, the script still needs work. The main problem with the plot is that it's short on events in the present - there isn't much to do except talk, push boxes around and pick through the garbage, which doesn't provide much narrative momentum - and long on backstory, most of it traumatic.
This leaves Milton and Bobby delving a little too often into their painful pasts. By the time they arrive at their climactic moment of revelation at the end, we've already been on several intense journeys with both of them, each complete with shouting and tears, and we're a little weary. I'd suggest being a bit stingier with the fireworks.
Transitions are often abrupt, ushered in by dramatic contrivances - lightning and thunder, entrances and exits, phones ringing - that feel a little too convenient.
But all this can be fixed. Reyland has a real play on his hands.