Life with Barney

Thanks to a great script by Gurney, thoughtful and fluid direction by de Acha, handsome set design by Robert Butcher, and perfect costumes by Lea Farr, the show does not noticeably suffer from Orizondo's excesses, though you may be tempted to cover one eye to block him out. This is Gurney with laughs, with tears, and with revelatory insights into the human condition. Once again I must applaud New Theatre for adding to their winning streak. In the arts as in anything else, consistent quality counts for more than brief flashes of brilliance.

On the other hand, David Arisco, an artistic director who has been known to complain that he can't fill the Actors' Playhouse and pay the bills with new work, has simply chosen very badly in his selection of Gardner McKay's unpleasant and implausible contemporary thriller, Toyer. On the Sunday matinee I attended, Arisco delivered a speech before the curtain rose. The house was only a quarter full, and he lamented the fact that Funny Girl and similar musty offerings earlier this season did much better. In truth, it has nothing to do with the age of the play. It has to do with the art of play. In the case of Toyer, this is a piece of theater I wouldn't recommend to my worst enemies.

Serial killers rarely succeed on a stage. The wit and humanity necessary for engrossing drama are usually absent from the lives of a Ted Bundy or a Danny Rolling. Sociopaths either have to be camp (Psycho Beach Party), sing a great musical score (Sweeney Todd), or they have to have leaves (Little Shop of Horrors). The predator in Toyer is disgusting -- period. He drugs his women victims, rapes them, and then performs two grisly medical operations on them. First he lobotomizes them, then he severs their spinal cords at the cervical vertebrae, rendering them paralyzed vegetables. Oh what fun.

Why he performs these operations is never made clear. But then, nothing in this melodramatic script makes any sense. The maniac comes to see a female psychiatrist, who coincidentally "treats" all his victims. Why does a psychiatrist treat decerebrated quadriplegics? Who knows? She lets him into her house because she thinks he's gay. He tells her he's the "Toyer," and she glancingly stabs him on the arm with a kitchen knife. But he whines at the sight of blood and claims he was just acting a part, and she makes love to him. Sure.

It gets worse. I don't even think the television networks could come up with a movie of the week that unspools in such a sophomoric fashion. The characters aren't developed, the dialogue is forced and phony, and the plot is obsessed with prefrontal lobes.

Bethany Bohall as the psychiatrist Maude is almost as painful to watch as the play itself. She never exhibits any semblance of honesty. Her fear isn't real, nor is her passion or her intellect -- nada. Tom Wahl, who is a fine actor, is the only joy to behold. He manages to rise above all the improbabilities and silly lines to present a chilling sociopath, which goes to show that you can't keep true talent down.

Arisco's direction neither hurts nor helps, but Michael Thomas Essad's clever and well-constructed set -- an interior space with lots of corners and mirrors for characters to hide but still be seen by the audience A adds to the action. In fact, the idea of using the stage layout to enhance the suspense is a nice touch, and I hope someone writes a better play and tries this trick again.

Actors' Playhouse warns the audience that this is a "mature play" with nudity and sex scenes. They would have been better off telling us it's a rotten play. In his program notes, playwright McKay explains, "It is about our dreadful crimes; not that they happen, that we know about them and turn the page." In the case of the Playhouse, the dreadful crime was knowing about it, and rather than turning the page, putting it on the stage.

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