2017 Capital Fringe Review: ‘This Too Comes By Hard’

No way around it, this is a dark, harsh, and gritty domestic drama. For some, it may be too dark, too harsh, too gritty, perhaps a partner violence trigger. A fun, frothy, feel-good frolic this show is decidedly not. But it’s got a riveting story structure, creditable acting and direction, and cutting, high-tension dialogue that kept me on the edge of my seat.  For devotees of tight, intense playwriting, James E. Custer’s This Too Comes By Hard is a seriously terrific must-see.

Not incidentally, it’s also an auspicious debut for Unreal City Theatre, a brand-new company out of Harrisburg, Virginia.

An oversized bare bulb hangs over the hard-scrabble digs of a young man and woman with clearly no money. There are a table and chairs and milk crates packed with books. Their toilet is an outhouse. They shower at a truck stop. The overhead bulb flickers on and off in the interstices between dimensions of their reality.

He’s jittery, wound like a knot. His restless leg quivers. He could explode at any moment. And he does. He barks at her abruptly in rage.

They’ve been together five years. She calls him “hon.” She loves him. His anger and aggression never wane. They do and deal drugs. Smoking crystal meth is their relaxant of choice. She brings up the subject of marriage. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

He has terrifying dreams. He has dreams that he thinks are real. He dreams of death. He dreams of her hanging herself. He wants her to leave. He wants her to stay.

Lights shift abruptly. Their exchanges suddenly become voice-over. Music and sounds jolt. Like time is out of joint.

She: Do you think it or did you dream it?

He: Is there a difference?

She: Do you think it or did you dream it?

He: It’s too hard to know for sure.

Her parents cut her off when she took up with him. His parents come for dinner. It is a disaster. He and his father have a confrontation. He chews her out in front of them.

A preacher appears to him. She wants to listen to him. She wants to help him. He won’t be helped.  “Violence is part of life,” he hurls at her.

He can’t tell his dreams from what’s real, and neither can we. He can’t tell his dreams from drug-altered states, and neither can we. Which makes watching this play unnervingly gripping.

Scott W. Cole directs with impressive acuity. Heidi Winters Vogel and Buddy Garrison as the long-suffering parents and Jessie Houff as the well-intentioned preacher embody the noble futility of adults when youth are determined to self-destruct.

And Will Browning and Angie Tolomei enact the young couple’s poisoned/impassioned codependency—her masochism a near match for his violence—with such fierce believability it at times made me wince.

So intense was their performance, in fact, that I was much relieved to read afterward in an interview with Tolomei on Unreal City Theatre’s blog that she and Browning have been friendly colleagues since their first meeting in rehearsal. (I share that for those who, in the wake of Chicago’s Profiles scandal, may wonder/worry during this show as I did.)

I was also interested to read this on the same blog from the playwright:

Being able to explore the way that people talk fascinates me. My main influences are Sam Shepard, Duncan Macmillan, Jon Fosse and others who experiment with dialogue and its forms. Playwrights who try to accurately portray real dialogue are who I’m drawn to, and that certainly influences how I write.

Smart traces of Shepard, Macmillan, and Fosse in This Too Comes By Hard are unmistakable. James E. Custer is a writer to watch.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

This Too Comes By Hard plays through July 23, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. Performances are captioned. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.


Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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