A story about twenty-somethings in Brooklyn discovering the meaning of life would usually have me running for the hills.
But there is something intriguing about Ground UP Productions’ new play Rubber Ducks and Sunsets, now playing at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Written by Catya McMullen, Rubber Ducks takes place in the weeks after the death of Al, a photographer who is survived by his sister Amy (Christine Mottram), his boyfriend Walter (JD Taylor), his assistant Petey (Zac Moon), and his friends Casey (Anna Stromberg) and Eli (Josh Evans). Each character has their own way of dealing with Al’s death. Eli begins training for the “Iron Bro,” a competition that combines “athleticism, recreational drug use and stamina.” Amy, who has been estranged from Al for years, tries to build relationships with Walter and his friends. (Warning: results will vary.) Petey is curating some of Al’s possessions for a Vanity Fair spread, and despite her dislike for Petey, Casey decides to help. Meanwhile, Walter plays his guitar alone in the bathroom, where Al died.
The action takes place in Al and Walter’s Brooklyn apartment. The characters mention how “awesome” the apartment looks, and they aren’t lying. Designed by Travis McHale, Rubber Ducks’ set captures the magic of a realistic Broadway set in a much smaller venue. When you look at the set, it feels as if you are looking into the interior of a Brooklyn photographer’s apartment, ironic animal trophy head and all. Speaking of New York real estate, it was refreshing to see that Al had the apartment because he was rich enough to afford it, and not through some rent-controlled-elderly-cousin-luck that’s been trotted about in way too may New York-based narratives.
Playwright Catya McMullen is one to watch. Her dialogue is fresh and rings true, and it’s sweet to see Casey and Walter have their imaginative bouts of one-upmanship: “Would you still be my friend if I talked to pigeons? / If I was turned on by cacti? / If I exfoliated with falafel? / If I had a lucky merkin?” The actors bring a earnest vibrancy to their performances, from Josh Evans’ goofy Eli to Anna Stromberg’s ballsy but vulnerable Casey to JD Taylor’s troubled Walter. If the cast was sometimes a little too fast with their dialogue, it can be attributed to their enthusiasm for the text (and opening night excitement). And Scott Klopfenstein’s original music is beautifully complex, underscoring the grief felt by Walter and his friends.
The play’s ending felt a bit abrupt. Amy and Petey’s stories get short shrift (what happened to the Vanity Fair piece?), while Eli, Walter, and Casey reaffirm their bonds of friendship. But the plot isn’t necessarily the focus of Rubber Ducks and Sunsets. The characters are, as they forge new identities, support each other, and wear their hearts (unironically) on their sleeves.