In 2012, retired high-school athletics director Richard Hulse self-published a memoir about his lifelong association with a fellow named Baines: Forty Crazy Years of Friendship. After a life that included BMOC status at a San Fernando Valley high school and an unsuccessful career as an actor and writer, Baines died in a fire, prompting Hulse to reflect. The book was written in straightforward English, episodic in structure, absent the disciplinary hand of an editor. The stage version now enjoying its premiere at the Hollywood Fringe Festival captures the fundamental earnest-amateur essence of the book.
Bob Arnold’s adaptation is called Old Friends. Arnold has trimmed and framed the story around the gathering of middle-aged men to clean out Baines’ burnt-out condo, and as far as I can tell it is Arnold who has introduced the supernatural element of Baines’ ghost. Yes, Baines (John M. McLaughlin) returns to chat, relive old times, and debate morality with the character of Richard (Dennis Hattem) while Baines’ brother-in-law (Von Schauer), estranged brother (Charlie Collie), and old pal (Bob Wilson) do the cleaning, mostly offstage. The vignettes of old-time shenanigans and adolescent life-lessons are performed by Phillip Greenbaum and Chris Jupitz as Young Baines and Young Richard, with swing work by Dennis Ruelas and Sarah Arnold.
There’s a family-hour feel to the whole project. Both the book and the play are rife with corny aw-shucks dialogue, and what little story unfolds onstage is of the familiar, comfort-food “Let’s learn a lesson from tragedy” and “Life goes on once we forgive” genre. But there’s a more literal all-in-the-family element in play here. Middle-school drama teacher Bob Arnold is not only the playwright but his own director, and McLaughlin is a retired principal and lifelong friend of the book’s author. Collie grew up in the Valley, too, and recently retired from the Los Angeles School Police Department. So the onstage reunion seems somewhat mirrored in the wings.
Another commonality shared by much of the cast: they’re awful green. Several came to this project after retiring from other professions, and the casting isn’t a big help to them. An executive-level academic plays an artistic free spirit; a crew-cut policeman has to play a hippie civil rights activist. Performances that look sincere and impassioned are still unmotivated and indicative, even from the few here who boast significant credits. The actors who display the most chops – Ruelas and Greenbaum – only highlight the overall Judy & Mickey, Let’s Do a Play! spirit.
It’s not just the untutored acting that makes Old Friends feel like a school play. Whenever Baines and Richard head toward memory lane, Bob Arnold stops the action dead for about a minute to project a cute, but very tiny square of period-imagery video collage. There’s no necessity for most of these pauses, no quick-change or stage-setting to cover; it’s an unfortunate aesthetic choice. Then too, the uncredited set is rudimentary down front and unfinished behind, with not enough returns: actors wander, clearly thinking they’re offstage though the audience can see their arms and legs. And Sarah Arnold wears a nose-ring and navel jewelry throughout, even when playing someone from 1960s Ohio. Anything goes; we’re all friends here.
But professionalism doesn’t really seem like the goal. If you’re a Boomer looking for nostalgia, you may find it. And as far as a hopeful, Second-Act feel, just look at the program: two retired administrators, a retired cop, and a retired civil engineer collaborate with a couple of more seasoned actors and a few less than half their age, doing what they want with their golden years, which happens to include telling a more-or-less true story of friendship that endures beyond the grave. On a very basic level, that’s touching. As the playwright and director notes, “Death leaves a hole that is difficult to heal, but love leaves memories that no one can steal.” It even rhymes. Only a heartless critic could possibly have anything to say against it.
Old Friends plays:
Thursday June 18 at 8 p.m.
Sunday June 21 at 6:30 p.m.
Saturday June 27 at 3:30 p.m.
Sunday June 28 at 3 p.m.
at the Let Live Theater, 916 N. Formosa in Hollywood
for tickets, visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2031?tab=details