By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A few drops of Earl Grey accidentally spilled on the Italian footwear of a querulous shipping magnate escalates into a frightful incident in John Pollono’s “Rules of Seconds.” Hint: There will be blood.
A meek and mollycoddled Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Connor McCanlus) is stricken with a disorder that – in modern parlance – would classify him as an obsessive compulsive. Fearing the touch of another, he refuses to shake the hands of Walter Brown (Cotter Smith) after sealing a business deal. Hot-tempered Brown cites the Code Duello, an Irish code of conduct that outlines the parameters for dueling.
Side note: While the play is fictitious, the actual Code Duello – with all of its odd rules – is completely real. Highlights from the original document – drawn up in 1777 – included the formal steps of an apology, proper dueling etiquette and the role of seconds.
Rule 14 (as narrated by Jack Erdie): “Seconds must be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, insomuch as a second may choose or chance to become a principal, and equality is indispensable.”
Wings sidesteps protocol once more and reaches out to his estranged brother James (Patrick Jordan) and act as his second to negotiate with the disgruntled party. While the estrangement of the two brothers remains secret in the first act, all is revealed before the final curtain. Let’s just say, their mother, Martha (Robin Walsh) is less than thrilled to see the return of her prodigal son.
Hannah Leary (Nancy McNulty), Walter Brown’s maid, is also unhappy about her reunion with James.
Meanwhile, Wings and James try to dissuade Brown from dueling with pistols at dawn, but the combative Brown will not be charmed out of the fight. He introduces his second, Señor Jeronimo Sanchez de Carranza (Mickey Miller) and his doctor (Jack Erdie). The Leeds brothers find their own doctor in Albert Chang (Donald Chang), a man who has sparred with James in the very recent past.
Side note: The Latino Theatre Company and the Tremblors, a collective of seven Los Angeles- based playwrights produced the world premiere of Pollono’s “Rules of Seconds.” The original cast included Leandro Cano, an actor who has frequently trod the boards of the barebones stage.
While the subject matter of “Rules of Seconds” is very grim, it is a dark comedy, rife with humor. The play is laugh out loud funny.
There are snippets of dialogue that are jarring. At first, they seem like poorly placed anachronisms. One word, “redneck” seemed particularly out of place, but, on further research, it was discovered to have been used way back in 1873. The citation describes rednecks as “the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts…men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin stained red and burnt by the sun, and [this] is especially true of the backs of their necks.” The etymology of the phrase “You’re dead to me” could not be verified.
Director Melissa Martin cast an amazing crew. The actors are superb, especially the distaff members of the cast. Walsh and McNulty are magnificent in their roles. Each of them raging against the inequities of their sex – a heavy burden of the mid-nineteenth century woman. Walsh’s Martha faces several indignities that caused the audience to collectively gasp.
While McCanlus and Jordan don’t look related at all, the brotherly chemistry between them is palpable. They are a joy to watch, especially when interacting with each other.
There is a scene with Dave Mansueto and Wali Jamal that has little to do with the rest of the play, but it is such a beautifully written sidebar that it can be forgiven for traipsing off in its own direction.
Erdie has a charismatic stage presence. He charms the audience even while reading the dry, archaic rules from the Code Duello. He shows up later in the second act in a role that won’t be spoiled here.
While Carranza is taciturn, Miller makes powerful use of each line.
Robert C. T. Steele’s costumes are exquisite – and extremely important to the plot. Remember: the play hinges on the beauty of a pair of leather boots, the infinitesimal stain and the grief it causes. The play has moody lighting from Andrew Ostrowski, excellent sound work from Dave Bjornson and authentic-looking props.
Tickets will go fast. It’s probable that Cotter Smith’s fan base will spark enthusiasm for the production. The actor has been seen in a myriad of television and film, including, most recently, David Fincher’s Netflix series, “Mindhunter.” While he may be a catalyst to get people off their couches and into the theater, he is not the primary reason to go. Go for the incredible performances of the entire ensemble. Go for the humor. Go for the message.
It’s a powerful play. Once you see it, you may go back for “Seconds.”
The “Rules of Seconds” runs until February 17 at the barebones black box theater, 1211 Braddock Avenue, Braddock, PA 15104. For more information, click here.