There is special providence in recalling the moment when meeting someone means a life is forever changed.
Marcus and Frank’s lifelong friendship is crafted from specific trauma — both sixth graders sit in their middle school parking lot waiting for parents to pick them up long after their last peer has gone home. This daily ritual gives both a reason to bond, and an immediate connection is formed. For Marcus and Frank, a lifetime of triumphs and heartaches await, built from the moment when a special handshake was the most important thing in their lives.
City Lights Theater Company’s world premiere production of “Waiting for Next” works best when illuminating the universal truths of its subjects. There are many moments that feel supremely sincere, touchstones of delight and destruction. Yet at other times, the humor pushes too far in the mugging direction, sacrificing honest interactions of the characters for something less authentic and satisfying.
Director Leslie Martinson’s steady hand crafts a beautifully paced account, moving the action cleanly within the gratifying, metaphoric transitions that double as critical parts of the story.
Throughout the play, so much is revealed that makes the characters wholly relatable. There is Marcus (Max Tachis), a tall and lanky white kid who’s never had to answer a question about where he’s actually from. Not the same for Frank (Wes Gabrillo), a Filipino American who has to explain he’s actually American, and why a delicacy such as dinuguan is incredibly delicious. While we see their differences clearly at the onset, what comes through mightily is the collection of commonalities that far outweigh whatever distinctions exist on the outside.
While the play moves in a chronology that takes the friends from the ages of 12 until 40, there is nothing linear about the roller coaster ride of their existence. Each experiences the thrills and obstacles of life’s discoveries — the possibility of a real sexual encounter that looms on prom night, the pressure of crafting a speech to canonize a friendship on a wedding day, the raging at a parent who fell woefully short while on earth, now lying beneath the earth. Whether sharing giddy laughs while sporting sick cumberbuns and ill-fitting jackets before revealing themselves to their dates, or one offering an umbrella to the other when tears and rain meld together, the validity of the narrative is palpable.
The sustenance of the story lies within the junctures when Lo’s pointed pen crafts conversations that are real, raw and sharp as a shard of glass. Writing this play specifically for Tachis and Gabrillo allows both actors to engage their adroit skills built on many regional stages. The narrative of 28 years shows fierce potential for trajectories to shift mightily, often putting the union in pernicious peril.
One scene in particular is set inside a prison. What makes the piece soar here is how the entire moment is smartly unfurled. Martinson brilliantly opts to truthfully shape a powder-keg conversation loaded with visceral veracity rather than dive into banal, common cliches. Leading up to a moment like this are a host of unlocked mysteries which are the real issues that the play comments on — a slick examination of race and the disconcerting collateral damage of alcoholism and domestic violence. There is a lot of questioning on what it means to reckon with those dynamics as a friendship hangs on for dear life.
While the story specifically focuses on Marcus and Frank, there’s plenty that speaks to the different points of a life for anyone. The thrill of a sexual awakening as an older teen becomes a devastating discovery that a loveless marriage has arrived in the blink of an eye. There’s also the real fear that a reckoning with parental trauma might not have happened before one’s own child arrives.
While the final denouement feels inorganic, shooting for a sentimentality laid out more effectively in prior scenes, the play’s power comes from its pragmatic viewing of how every step of our lives is built on the moment just lived. A friendship between males that isn’t loaded with toxic, misogynistic banter is refreshing, revealing a journey that’s touching and tender.
The mystery of how life unfolds between friends can be a bucolic thrill. The triumphs and travails of long-standing relationships show how the next thing is often the best thing. At the very least, it’s certainly worth the wait.
David John Chávez is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and recently served as a juror for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Twitter: @davidjchavez.
‘WAITING FOR NEXT’
World premiere by Jeffrey Lo, presented by City Lights Theater Company
Through: June 19
Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Health & safety: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test is required, masks are strongly advised
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission