Three Into Two Won't Go

It's tourist season, which means you can expect local theaters to pull a few bunnies out of their hats. Most venues try to open top shows, or at least new shows, to snag the attention of snowbirds temporarily bored by beach and bar. Catering to audiences wired on a vacation high, these productions have to be pretty bad to bomb.

Which is not to say it can't happen.
Boredom is the quickest means to such an end. In order to engage an audience, a writer must tell a story through a series of engaging events - dramatic action is key, it's what separates playwriting from all other forms of writing. Mere dialogue without action is doomed to degenerate into what one teacher of mine referred to as "talking heads," and what I call "please let this be over soon."

At the root of the problem with two local shows, and the success of another, dramatic action separates the artists from the merchants, the spark of inspiration from the ordinary and, ultimately, dull.

But let's start with good news. The final third of a trilogy of Off Broadway plays called The Marvin Songs, Falsettoland grabs you, tickles you a bit, then traps you in an emotional tailspin. An innovative, totally sung musical, it traces the lives of seven people trying to cope with thoroughly modern tragedies - divorce, greed, psychiatry, homosexuality, and AIDS. Thanks to continuous dramatic action, what might have been maudlin or boring in the hands of lesser writers than William Finn and James Lapine, flows smoothly and quickly.

Although certain songs make an impact and certain plot twists leave an impression, this piece, like a symphony or sonnet, works as a whole rather than as the sum of parts. Marvin, a divorced homosexual with a son about to be bar mitzvahed, faces life's black comedies with the help of his friends. And remarkable friends they are, from the lesbians next door to his ex-wife and her shrink hubby, to Marvin's confused son. Yes, it's schmaltzy at times, but for a musical, remarkably contained overall.

James Morgan (who directed this production for the Caldwell Theatre) and Lapine (responsible for the original staging) must be saluted for stellar work. With almost no set, minimal lights, and a few props, they create a world of passion and love. Similarly the cast, talented vocalists equally adept at acting, sing with commitment both alone and together. Stuart Marland as Whizzer performs the ultimate stage trick, withering face and body gradually over the course of an act - without the aid of make-up.

In the absence of innovation and dramatic action, you get musicals like Romance, Romance. Although another winner of awards, the mediocre production by Actors' Playhouse only emphasizes the play's basic problem: the "talking heads" phenomenon. Essentially two separate plays in one, the first act deals with a couple of upper crust bores in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Disguising themselves as rabble for amusement, they meet, fall in love, reveal their true identities, and remain in love. That's it. To make matters worse, major events are related through letters to friends rather than via real love scenes - a giant action-killer.

The second, slightly more interesting act concerns two long-time pals - one male, one female - wrestling with a relationship that suddenly turns from platonic to erotic. But neither act amounts to much, and the characters don't evolve. With competent but uninspired direction by David Arisco, and cruise-ship-standard performances by the cast, only the songs by Barry Harman and Keith Hermann stand a chance of rousing the evening (although with a scant band and bad acoustics, it's not much compensation). The lead actors - Luke Lynch and Candace Cooke - come through with real if not marvelous moments, except when they sing together. Without going into the technical reasons why their duets duck so much, someone should change keys to suit the singers.

So many possible culprits to choose from in the disastrous production of Agatha Christie's ĮWitness for the Prosecution, at the Vinnette Carroll Theatre, make the play a virtual whodunit within a whodunit.

The suspects?
The author: Agatha Christie was celebrated as a playwright significantly beyond her gifts. Though skilled at the mystery novel, her stage stuff goes on so long (more than three hours) with so little dramatic action, watching it is like being read to from a book. The second act, longer than a Russian novel, evokes the worst imaginable episode of Perry Mason. Tacked on to a dreary ending are two implausible plot twists.

The director: Vinnette Carroll's simple staging works, and the technical aspects serve the piece, but everything else strays dangerously close to an amateur production. A weird cabaret scene - complete with cast members trying to dance - intrudes on the first act without warning or meaning. The second and third acts grow unevenly camp, bad almost to the point of creepy. Half the actors invest their characters with reality, while Vinnette allows (directs?) the others to overact to a point I thought not physiologically possible.

The cast: Only Bill Hindman as the defense lawyer impressed me as an actor's actor, producing authentic, grounded work in the face of total incompetence. Beverly Besoner in a small role as the judge, and Tom Wahl in a pivotal role as a man betrayed by his wife, also manage to stay near the track. But Mary Plante, Joe Murray, and Joseph Albright mistake mugging and histrionics for parody. Still, even their sins pale in comparison with Mary Blake as the treacherous wife, whose hysterics at one point escalated to such a scary pitch, I was forced to look away.

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