Reviewed by Brooke Clariday
Theatre Reviews Limited
Picture this: You’re stuck on a train at 1 AM with three drunken brothers. They’re arguing over the death of their father, their alcoholic breaths fumigating the train, as they argue about personal family issues as loudly as possible. At first, the conversation is hilarious, but as it picks up and becomes more violent, what was once entertaining, is now sickening, but impossible to look away from. Much like that train ride, “Derby Day” written by Samuel Brett Williams, is witnessing a drunken fight come to life, as three brothers escape to the race track following the funeral of their father.
The Ballard brothers, Frank, Johnny and Ned are back in Arkansas at the Oaklawn Park Race Track, mourning their late abusive father, who they call “Big Bastard”. Renting out a luxury box, drinking PBR, and placing bets on horses, these three brothers go down a path of uncovering family secrets that leave them unraveled forever. Encountering with their waitress, Becky, the boy are seen juxtaposed to a kind hearted woman who they mouth off to, and end up hurting horribly. Their chaos continues as truths come out: from sleeping with other brother’s wives, a history of alcoholism, and the truth behind their father’s death, “Derby Day” contains a pulse that leaves the audience shaking with every fight, curse, and shocking truth.
This play, though deeply entertaining, is hard to enjoy once you realize the heavy nature of it. It isn’t because it isn’t well written, or because the performances aren’t amazing (they truly are) but, the Ballard Brothers have no redeeming qualities about them. They are cruel to each other, cruel to a harmless waitress, and cruel to themselves.
This dance between dangerous and hilarious is all thanks to Williams’ deeply personal script, as he discusses the culture of a race track, and dysfunctional family, well. His pacing is so in tune to the actors, that it almost seems too real as the day uncovers the secrets of the brothers, creating the perfect moments of high tension. Standing out is a stunning scene when Johnny is on the phone with his ex-wife, having just left prison after facing drug charges. Through this conversation he is heavily drunk, and begging for the right to see his daughter. For a moment, the audience feels sorry for him, but then, he says words that bring the realization of what a horrible human being he truly is, and the sour taste is back in your mouth again and he pops open another round of Pabst, and the bubbly liquid explodes onto the floor.
The set, though minimal, gives the audience a literal view of a window into the luxury box at the races. Popping bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon that spill onto the stage, a table that smashes in half, destroying chairs, paper that is shredded, the stage and set pieces perfectly match the lives of the brothers that spiraled out of control. Their father’s abuse led for this path, and his death did not fix the turmoil he caused them, or the chaos they put on themselves. The chaotic destroyed Luxury Suite is as raw and real as the brothers disgusting attitudes are, and together they create the perfect atmosphere for the play.
Robert M. Foster gives a gut wrenching performance as Frank, the oldest brother who now lives in Chicago. Frank’s performance is the meat of the show, creating a sense of reason, but then he is seen unwinding as his brothers encourage him to drink. A recovering alcoholic for four years, Frank’s vow is broken as he says “no one in Chicago will see me here,” and the audience feels their struggle. Constantly fighting with his brother Ned, he is a highly physical character and Robert delivers that with fierceness.
Malcolm Madera plays Ned in a sarcastic smart-ass way, allowing for Ned to pretty much stay as is the entire performance. He makes no great revelations, besides admitting fault to a lot of mistakes he’s made, and continuing to drink until he is unable to walk and has flung himself on top of a table. Malcolm plays drunk extremely well, it’s hard to tell that it’s an actor and not a real, live, angry, drunk man about to come onto the audience steps and scream in your face. His performance is hilarious and physical, and again, is hard to like.
Jake Silbermann‘s performance as Johnny is about as raw as it gets in live theatre. It’s rough in a perfectly planned fashion, as Jake knows every move that Johnny will make, every stumble, and unbelievably naïve stupid mistake that he creates throughout the day of the derby. His flirtation with Becky is both painful to watch, and then sweet, until he provides this perfect insight onto his character that will leave you shocked and your blood boiling.
Delivering a powerful monologue on the importance of women is Teresa Stephenson, Becky, who speaks on her self-worth as Frank attempts to buy her off when they destroy the luxury suite. She talks to the men as animals, and her performance is riveting. Using a sweet southern accent and then showing her importance to the story, Becky makes the play work. Without Teresa’s performance, the men would fall short. Her perfect blend of flirtation and edge makes her as real as a waitress comes, and her interactions allow for the play to have a sense of redemption for its otherwise hard to swallow content.
“Derby Day” is essentially a mix of assholes and alcohol. As dark comedy’s come, It’s a jam packed evening of amazing performances that allow the audience to be up close and personal to the actor. It is extremely intimate, but still has big moments of high action and contains twists that will leave your stomach in knots as you exit the theatre. in knots. The play closes in New York, but will continue onto the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and if you find yourself there, “Derby Day” should be on your “must see” list.