Empire Stage Is On Point with “Off Balance”

Ironically enough for a play as funny and fun-filled as Off Balance, its world premiere is now taking place at Empire Stage under some uniquely tragic circumstances. The show is among the last works completed by the late local playwright Michael Aman, who died of brain cancer last May.

As Aman’s late husband Michael Bush, who is also Off Balance’s director, explained to the audience in a heartfelt pre-show speech, one of Aman’s worst fears was of his work being forgotten. And though I’m not familiar with the rest of Aman’s oeuvre, if Off Balance is any indication, I would be happy to see his exceptional work live on. 

This farcical jaunt tells the unusual story of roommates Billy (Caleb Polsky) and April (Brooke Hall). While she is thrown literally off-balance by recurrent attacks of vertigo, Billy is more figuratively misaligned when he agrees to let his chaotic vagabond ex-lover Peter (Michael Paul) stay with him in their apartment. 

Photography by Matthew Tippins.

Initially, Billy views Peter’s visit as a chance to potentially reconnect with his old flame, who had a mysterious ability to quiet the churn of his anxiety when they were together but left him broken when he disappeared. Though April was initially opposed to Peter’s visit due to the toll it might take on Billy’s mental health, it isn’t long before Peter’s overwhelming sexual energy starts taking hold over her as well. Matters then escalate even further when Peter’s much older lover Loretta (Beverly Blanchette) comes in guns blazing to try to win back her stud, who, as it eventually becomes clear, has not only the power of utter sexual irresistibility but straight-up mystical ones. 

Photography by Matthew Tippins.

Blanchette takes a spectacular turn as the fashion-forward alcoholic, and both her and Hall absolutely nailed some memorable moments of vertigo-related physical comedy. Paul’s performance was another highlight; he was plenty charismatic and surprisingly natural as his charming character and appeared completely comfortable onstage even during the moments when he appeared there sans boxers (yes, as the play’s description should warn you, stay away from Off Balance if you’re not cool with a little male nudity…). 

Photography by Matthew Tippins.

Polsky and Hall have the harder roles as the show’s straighter and therefore less interesting protagonists, and their performances both seemed a little overdrawn and unsteady in its earlier and more naturalistic sequences. But as the play picked up speed, the two seemed to pick up energy, or perhaps to be a better fit for its off-kilter energy, with flaws fading from attention as the jokes raced by.

Photography by Matthew Tippins.

While the arcs of the main characters could perhaps have been a bit more clearly defined and some plot elements set up a bit more adeptly, the play definitely made the most of its kooky premise, with plenty of zingers to be found throughout and a satisfying conclusion that had us leaving the theatre on a high note. A perfect balance of whimsy and whit make Off Balance a worthy way to spend an evening. 

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