Acting Superior

The word "thespian" is derived from the name of the first actor who made history, Thespis, who dazzled the crowds at the festival of Dionysus in 534 B.C., but stirred up controversy simultaneously. According to Plutarch, the Greeks initially questioned the morality of drama; Solon, the great lawgiver, publicly denounced the acting of Thespis as "lying." When Thespis explained that "lying" in a play was de rigueur, Solon proceeded to plunge his stick into the ground and protest, "But if we commend lies on a stage, someday we will find them in politics." Talk abouta prophet.

Since this is an election year and the candidates continue to spin tales of how they're going to fix this and pay for that, I believe it's safe to praise great acting, even if it does require a fib or two -- especially when that greatness crops up in South Florida twice in the course of one week.

But first let me say that since I began this job about a year ago, I've learned to keep two Tylenol handy at all times. Apart from the professional Equity houses -- Coconut Grove, TOPA, Parker Playhouse, the Caldwell -- much of the acting I've witnessed has ranged from adequate to poor. Even in these houses, when so-called pros such as Pia Zadora and George Peppard showed up, it was only to demonstrate that plywood can move and speak. But recently the sun gods seem to be smiling with renewed hope, because the local talent many thought didn't exist in this area has been surfacing with increasing regularity.

The second entry of ACME's new playwriting festival -- Joe Sutton's The Benefits of Doubt -- offers a perfect example. The ticket price is a bargain here, considering how deftly this cast "lies." It's easy to believe Gregg Todd Davis as the loud-mouthed, insecure business bumbler Ray Daws; the same can be said for Robert Sindler (a graduate of New World School of the Arts) as his smarter but abused partner Hubie. Sindler in particular could race from Alton Road to Broadway or the Big Screen -- he's that good. The leading women in the cast -- Ellen Rae Littman as conniving tramp/ writer Vicky, and Marcy Rudershausen as Ray's cuckolded girlfriend Tracy -- give equally realistic and subtle performances. Throughout both acts, the Tylenol remained tucked away in my pill case.

Joe Sutton's play hints at far more talent than ACME's first misguided script, A Cradle of Sparrows, but Sutton -- a New York veteran and winner of an NEA fellowship whose works have been produced at several prestigious houses including the Actors Theatre of Louisville -- needs to do some rewriting if this piece is to rise above average. While Sutton crafts very actable characters and creates some suspense, the overall vehicle needs fine-tuning.

For example, David Mamet's influence runs as noticeably through the play as the Thames runs through London. Remember that Mamet typically writes with a stinging, rapid-fire wit, an ingredient barely discernible here. Sutton could easily cut the length of many scenes by eliminating much of the excess chatter, which neither amuses nor excites. Everyone gets the idea -- that the two Northern rubes trying to pull off the resort deal of the century on the Gulf Coast of Florida spout mostly crap -- but the witless babbling stops action dead.

Also, while it's true that Mamet manages to get away with being the most outrageous misogynist since Andrew Dice Clay, that's no reason for Sutton to follow suit -- particularly since Mamet will at least allow his females to metamorphose into crafty competitors, while Sutton's women are mere dunces. These girls bounce atop men so sleazy and shallow, you wonder why they ever accepted the first drink. The most blatant example of babe-bashing occurs during an exchange between Hubie and Ray, when they deny "acting like a woman" in a business deal -- "without balls." Take that, Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Mamet's dirty-business situations is that everyone stinks -- even the protagonists. Sutton, on the other hand, clearly makes Hubie and Ray the good guys, while the villains -- a stereotypical cracker a la Colonel Sanders, and his mysterious, ponytailed boss -- are so absolutely evil you half expect them to cackle and stroke their mustaches. Such black and white distinctions belong in teleplays for kickboxer flicks; grayer areas of human ethics better suit the stage.

Along the same lines, predictable plot twists and unbelievable plot elements may indicate that Sutton is yet another new playwright who leans toward popular culture. For instance, losers Hubie and Ray somehow manage -- right under the nose of the two villains who literally run the town -- to option the last prime piece of beachfront property around. And Hubie conveniently falls for Vicky, the villain's moll. Similar cliches and contrivances remind one more of Matlock than Macbeth.

For the play, ACME's new space houses a stunning multilevel, multiarea set by Lyle Baskin, and impeccable technical details such as sharp lighting and appropriate mood music. Director Adalberto J. Acevedo keeps the pace rolling and his actors on track, even at those junctures where the script gets its needle stuck.

At the same time ACME's acting up a storm, an independent group ominously called S.O.O.T. Productions manages to stage (at the Minorca Playhouse) a well-done revival of the Reaganomics-flavored hit Eastern Standard, by Richard Greenberg. Revolving around a group of New York yuppies who meet in an upscale restaurant during a bag lady's sudden assault on them, the play's short on plot but wealthy in dialogue. Two couples (one gay, one straight), a waitress aspiring to be an actress, and the bag lady herself wind up sharing a summer house in the Hamptons -- with mixed results. Greenberg owns a wonderful ear for Trump wanna-bes: Phoebe, an ex-junk bond princess, describes her newnice-guy boyfriend as "having no plumage." Homeless May defensively barks, "I used to be lower middle class, you know." But sometimes the themes and conflicts seem as dated as The Donald himself. Gays barely acquainted with AIDS and workers so flush they can glibly quit their jobs belong to a fluffier decade.

Director Madison Tyler stages seamlessly, and should thank himself for rounding up a skillful cast. Particularly excellent are David Caprita (otherwise known as the morning deejay on Love 94), nicely underplaying a closet AIDS victim, Dagmar Bergan as the bombastic bag lady, and Melissa Cochran, who as the dopey waitress expertly juggles tricky monologues. Without the aid of a set or lights (both were minimal at best), S.O.O.T. put on a very tidy show. They ought to change their name to something more appealing and appear more often in local venues.

The foundation of great drama, of course, lies in the drama itself. But even a sweet piece turns to sludge when the actors do nothing more than memorize lines. Fortunately, South Florida marches forward, with more true thespians lying with much greater finesse than any of this country's politicians.

THE BENEFITS OF DOUBT by Joe Sutton, directed by Adalberto J. Acevedo; with Gregg Todd Davis, Ellen Rae Littman, Marcy Rudershausen, Robert Sindler, Ed Anderson, and Al Espinosa. At ACME Acting Company, 955 Alton Rd, Miami Beach, through August 24. Performances Tues -- Sat 8:15 p.m.; Sundays 7:15 p.m. Tickets cost $12.50-$15.00. Call 531-2393.

EASTERN STANDARD by Richard Greenberg, directed by Madison Tyler; with David Caprita, Melissa Cochran, Steven Harad, Thomas Paglia, Denise Celina Sanchez, and Dagmar Bergan. At the Minorca Playhouse, 232 Minorca Ave, Coral Gables through August 30. Performances Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m.. Donation of your choice. Call 446-1116.

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