Gia Reviews: ‘Derby Day’ at The Elephant Theatre

by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

Win  Place  Show

Dad’s dead and it’s Derby Day at the Oaklawn Racing Festival. Let’s not celebrate his life or his death.  Bury the bastard and get drunk instead. Three hard knocks brothers face off at the race track unceremoniously – directly after their father’s brief funeral.

Destructive on every level and entirely awash in beer is how one might describe this production. Aside from the ridiculous comments that any single moment this play could produce, there are two very dramatic themes.  Violence and Lost Dreams.  Ouch.  It’s a verbal, physical, yank-your-chain screamer. And according to the writer/director Samuel Brett Williams, it’s totally Americana, one we don’t often see.

Well, thank goodness for that.  Because sure it’s all funny, insanely funny if you want to know.  But you don’t have to dig too deep to uncover the horrific lives these three “boys to [almost] men” (whose births place them in the “allegedly related” category, according to whose story you would like to believe), have endured, to end up the all-out degenerates that they have become.

If I had to call it, and well, I guess I do, I’d say that overall there is not much likable about them. They are irreparably tragic.

Frank (Robert M. Foster), Ned (Malcolm Madera) and Johnny (Jake Silbermann) certainly make us laugh on a South Park level with their cruelly self-destructive, out of control, behavior as they banter and bully each other with the details of their marriages, prison experiences, adultery, children, divorces, parental misfortunes, questionable lineage and money. They even have the ability to occasionally charm, in a very superficial way. But ultimately, everything about them is scraped to the bone. They’ve each traded in their respective dreams for the illusion of being a winner which, on this day, is via a private betting box and the possibility of a horse that “comes in” big. Each one of them is a failure, a has-been and a deadbeat without hope whatsoever for a fresh start; not even in their current delusion which fades as quickly as the day. Not one them is able to grab hold of that illusive “if only” thing that will make it all right.

On the surface, the play is as a mess as the rented room post colossal Ballard Boy binge as they taunt, argue, wrestle, and slap each other around, including waitress Becky (Kimberly Alexander). They threaten, and bloody themselves, the furniture, the walls and everything else within range. Underneath all three know they are trapped. This is the best they’ll ever be.  “Ballards don’t quit nothin’!”  But they do.  They quit themselves.

Derby Day
Kimberly Alexander as Becky in Derby Day

What we come to learn over the course of the day is at least the cause. Their shared hatred or love for mostly their alcoholic depressed father who was violently abusive to the two younger brothers after eldest Frank left the scene at a young age; and a dismissiveness for a mother who didn’t do much for them either, least of all protect them from their father. The scene that takes place on this particular day is nothing more than an ongoing repeat of past episodes, doomed to a never-ending cycle. They will always be losers.

What is difficult about this play is the unavoidable ongoing mayhem of the stage direction. It fully and rightly elucidates this script but also becomes a distraction to the emotional moments; which in the case of the brothers is a useful tool for avoiding what is really needed here — real empathy, understanding, self-respect.  The purview of the entire play is limited to the brothers’ “acting out.”  And also, what is “expected” – happens.

It is expected that things will go from bad to worse and they do. It is expected that Becky will be the proverbial soccer ball getting kicked around even though she initially, apprehensively believes that at least one of these guys is worth her time.  And expectedly she is pushed right down to the ground, insulted and degraded even while attempting to be kind, understanding, cool and professional.  Ultimately, in Derby Day, nothing revelatory gets said. But we do certainly get an inside view and there are fleeting moments of spontaneous bonding that make you route for them, but not much.

Derby Day

What is amazing about this production are the four uniquely talented actors that bring this dizzying script to life.  Robert M. Foster, Malcolm Madera and Jake Silbermann throw down show-stopping performances.  Each one of these gentlemen inserts himself so well into that familiar semblance of eldest, middle child, baby, all the while, completely fulfilling their singular character descriptions, behaviors, physicalities and peculiarities. These guys being “guys” were great!

Kimberly Alexander had the toughest role to play as the only female character in a male driven production. However, Ms. Alexander more than measured up and managed to hold her own against all three men delivering a very strong performance!

Derby Day although not completely satisfying, is still worth seeing.  This play is a Trifecta in disaster. You will leave stunned.

Running time: 80 minutes.

Elephant Stages – Elephant Theatre
6322 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90038

Photo by Alex Moy: (L-R)  Robert M. Foster “Frank”, Malcolm Madera “Ned” and Jake Silbermann “Johnny”

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