Taking a literal page from the New York Times, two-year old Fledgling Theatre Co. were inspired by a 2015 newspaper story to create a stage play about two gay men who met, fell in love, and decided to create a commune. However, no one else showed up to join them.
Told in hindsight, the play with songs is a fictionalized account of these real-life men. It wobbles between seriousness and comedy with a narrator-like musician providing supportive and alternatively biting commentary as we go. The play explores questions of community, faith, and partnership through this couple who seemingly fail at their plan and yet keep moving on.
“Two plain living homosexuals with a feeling for the land,” sings narrator Bennie (Edoardo Elia), as he describes Brother Tobias (Christopher Neels) and Brother Alexander (Patrick Holt) the founders of rural Humbleton. Tobias and Alexander set out to make a new world order where they live off the land and form a brotherhood of like-minded souls. The main problem is neither can quite articulate their ideals or define the spiritual tenets of this place or their practice. They can’t even agree on how to pronounce Humbleton. They admit that their lack of charisma may have been a central problem to attracting others to their commune.
After 12 years of this rural isolation, Tobias and Alexander finally welcome a potential member. Pablo (Callum Cameron) finds their brochure and comes aboard. A college student with debilitating anxiety, Pablo is desperate to find a place to live with no judgment.
They Built It. No One Came. is a lo-fi production with Elia providing on stage sound effects, songs, and some stagecraft. The lyrics can be funny and often poke fun at these earnest but ultimately bumbling founders. The production plays their ineptitude for laughs from the start. There is an absurdity here that cannot be ignored. But when the situation becomes a bit more serious the production does not quite telegraph to the audience that a tonal shift is afoot—particularly in the face of Pablo and his mental illness. The laughter falls in unwelcome places.
Neels and Holt make no attempt to act as a couple and we’re the poorer for it. We only get a glimmer of why Tobias and Alexander came together in the first place. We need more to feel for them (and not just laugh at them). There is a sadness to their endeavor. We get a peek into the losses they have suffered but ideally a little compassion, in tone and approach, at the start of the show would pay dividends as we come to understand what has transpired.
There’s a fascinating and unusual story within this play. It touches on the ideas of self-isolation, community building, and the struggle to find (and keep) partners in faith or in life. But it would be nice to see those concepts coalesce with the characters earlier so that we feel the heart tug that we should sooner and more often.