Codes of honor have multitudinous iterations with a variety of names. Omerta for the Mafia. Bushido for Samurai. Courtly love for the softer-hearted knights of the Middle Ages. Regardless of the title or the culture, the codes center around ethics feigning to be nuanced and intricate—rules on the degree of offensiveness of the reciprocating offense relative to the initiating offense; rules on the declaration of pardon and surrender; rules on what exactly “honor” pertains to, exactly. Each code plays upon the indecencies and ignominies that individuals—men—feel are the greatest slights upon their perceived indefatigable honors. Each code is predicated upon a sense of fragile femininity that demands the codes stalwartness. Each code, of course, is really just bullshit.
This latter point–the ludicrous pointlessness of codes in their various forms; the laughably supercilious (at best) and violently toxic (at worst) masculinity that informs codes—is implicitly the driving force behind barebones productions recent show, Rules of Seconds (written by John Pollono). At a cursory level, Rules focuses on a pompously honor-bound dignitary, Walter Brown (played Mindhunter actor and recent Pittsburgh transplant Cotter Smith), who seeks out retribution against overly-anxious and somewhat foppish Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Pittsburgh stage-familiar Connor McCanlus) after an alleged violation of his honor. Keeping with the code, Brown challenges Nathaniel to a duel (the semantics of which are as absurd and delicately wrought as the code they are tied to), and Nathaniel must reconnect with his wily, foul-mouthed, estranged brother James Leeds (barebones productions founder and artistic director Patrick Jordan) to serve as his second, per the rules of the duel. The title of the show alludes to the arbitrary standards established to maintain the honorific smoothness of codes and the outrageous strictness with which standards of codes and duels are enforced (a man challenged to a duel must find a suitable second; if not the order of things is disrupted).
The self-awareness of the outlandish obsessiveness of these proceedings—and the fragility of the masculinity they defend—is the heart and sardonic humor of Rules. As one might deduce, the violation upon Mr. Brown’s honor is no real violation at all (it involves a splash of tea and an overload of vanity), and, in fact, Mr. Brown’s outrage has been festering for decades after he was romantically rejected and consequently humiliated by the Leeds boys’ mother, Martha (played with fierce stoicism by Point Park University’s head of acting, Robin Walsh), because of his low class. This notion of class disparity and “honor” relative to social status and gendered predominance is one of the stronger elements of the play’s narrative. The codes the men of the play ruthlessly abide by—with the exception of Nathaniel, who is coded as more logical and thus more feminine and less brutalist in the world of the play; and men in the working class like Bonnie (a very enjoyable Dave Mansueto) and Dyett (a robust Wali Jamal), who do not have the same access to honor that men of prestige do, it would seem—are simply performances to protect those things which they pathetically cling to as trademarks of their artificial masculinity. Both Patrick Jordan and Cotter Smith’s performances excellently highlight the artifice of masculinity and the silly semantics of the codes—they are flawlessly aggressive and grandiloquent; calculated and yet defiantly unaware of the pointlessness of their respective ethos. But it is perhaps the women of Rules, Robin Walsh and Nancy McNulty, who, through superb performances, most expertly demonstrate the play’s underlying remark on codes, masculinity, and the bullshit of it all.
The production crew truly makes the most of the rather small space of barenones’ new theatre in Braddock. The lighting and sound are masterfully manipulated to both remind audiences of intimacy, and yet render the viewer completely engulfed in the world of the show. Structurally, director Melissa Martin—whose keen and snarky eye gives the play a wit and mettle that enhances the experience exponentially—brilliantly arranges the play through a series of vignettes that are punctuated by the narration of Daniel Leeds, played with devilish cunning by Jack Erdie (whose face has been haunting me since his recent turn as the repugnant Richard Speck in Mindhunter). Erdie’s performance and placement throughout the play, along with fellow actors Wali Jamal, Dave Mansueto, and Mickey Miller, give the play a certain richness that augments the nearly flawless presentation and production, as they refuse to let smaller characters fade into the trope ether. One of the more enjoyable theatrical experiences I’ve had of late, both barebones and the cast and crew of Rules of Seconds put forth an outstanding production that abides by the codes of damn good dramaturge.
Rules of Seconds plays at the Barebones Black Box Theater in Braddock through February 17. Tickets are selling fast so reserve yours here.