Who's on First?

After successfully tackling the Bard in their first annual Shakespeare Festival, the plucky Florida Playwrights' Theatre now presents something completely different, and does it almost as well. Graceland, by Ellen Byron, and Line, by Israel Horowitz, are two one-act plays that fit together perfectly and provide an evening of smart, contemporary theater. Using minimal dialogue and absurd situations, both pieces concern lonely people consumed by an overwhelming need to be first, or best, at something. This obsession with first place -- with gold medalists, the richest folks, Guinness world-record holders -- is totally ridiculous and ultimately destructive.

In Graceland two women arrive at the same moment (three days early!) for the opening of Elvis's mansion to the public. Each intends to cross the threshold first. Each has different rationales for craving the number-one spot. Bev Davies has followed the King since the beginning of his career. She owns the largest memorabilia collection, knows the most Elvis trivia, et cetera, et cetera. She holds the record for almost everything regarding Elvis. Her fixation has helped her endure a dull life and a passionless marriage to her truck-driving husband, Tyler.

In a way Bev is perfectly normal. She comes equipped with a brand-new tent and a hearty supply of Mallomars, and sips from a can of light beer. She worries about her weight ("Bev is a fat name," she complains) and hides her thinning hair under a voluminous wig. Bev knows that Elvis has left the building and recognizes that people might think her deranged, but she has logical arguments for all her actions. Basically she insists she has a right to devote her free time to whatever type of worship she chooses.

Competing with her on line is Rootie Mallert, who is anything but normal (unless you count those freaks on Geraldo or Sally Jessy Raphael as being just plain folks). Rootie is too poor, too thin, and too dumb to realize that her life is a tragedy. Everyone in her family is dead. Tormented by an abusive husband, she has run away from a tiny Cajun town in Louisiana with only a few dollars and a few hard-boiled eggs to her name; but she also brings with her a crazy quilt of blind faith and devotion to a celebrity she considers to be one step away from God. Rootie believes that if she enters Elvis's mansion first, she will be saved. Because the day of the mansion's opening coincides with her cherished dead brother's birthday, she concludes that the heavens are gonna open wide and deliver a resurrected Elvis into her frail, waiting arms.

It may sound like a limited premise, but playwright Byron, director David Taylor London, and two excellent actresses make the most of this encounter between fanatics. The dialogue is funny, poignant, and believable, and London makes sure that every movement and moment count. As Rootie, Meredith Mursuli is superb, never overplaying the heavy accent or the irrepressible naivete, allowing some intellect to peak out from under her wild notions. "You're like one of those kids they find in the woods after ten years," Bev observes about Rootie. Mursuli manages to bring that raw, misguided quality to the character, rendering her human and likable at the same time. Karlene Tomlinson, as Bev, wisely embodies the perfect foil to Mursuli's child-fool; Bev maintains her dignity, insight, and composure at all times. In fact, Tomlinson plays her with so much grace, you almost forget that she is, after all, an Elvis maniac. Her comic timing is impeccable, and her acting skills flawless.

Line is a more contrived play, with a less skillful cast, but it still delivers laughs and action thanks to writer Israel Horowitz's interesting use of a parable as plot, and director Paul Thomas's careful staging. I say "careful" because the piece contains constant fights and broad physical movements. In the Florida Playwrights' 30-seat space, such acrobatics must be properly choreographed or the actors easily could land on audience members' laps.

In Line five characters -- four men and one woman -- argue, seduce, cajole, and in other ways trick each other out of the precious numero-uno position. Unlike the pair in Graceland, this queue seems to have assembled for no reason. The first person to appear, Fleming, actually establishes the "line" by placing a piece of adhesive tape on the stage. But when Stephen, a young intellectual, comes along, he immediately wants to usurp Fleming's spot. Eventually three others -- Molly, a frustrated wife; Arnall, her weak husband; and Dolan, a huge brute -- pass by and get drawn into the insanity. Soon the five people are doing outrageous things to each other just to move up in line.

The metaphors here are clear and sharply barbed. People -- mainly men -- furiously compete to be the best, whatever that means. Occasionally they take time out to have sex with a woman. When a woman gets ahead, she's called a "bitch" and a "whore"; and then she becomes dissatisfied because no one gives her credit. Where Graceland has a touch of the absurd, Line is totally absurdist drama. And while the two performers in the first play know how to act naturally in unnatural situations, the latter cast hams it up too much. Kerry Sensenbach (Fleming) and Marcia Herold (Molly) are topnotch when they act as though they're normal people fixated on an understandable goal. But they ruin the irony when they maniacally scream and stamp on the stage, as if they know the whole world is insane. As for the rest of the cast, Paul Waxman (Stephen) leers most of the time, Tom Madigan (Dolan) simply acts stupid, and Duncan Pflaster (Arnall) whines. The roles were written to be more than mere caricatures, but the actors don't seem to realize it.

The Florida Playwrights' Theatre should be applauded for selecting these plays and presenting them together, warts and all. If you can concentrate on the script rather than the acting in Line, you'll be entertained and enlightened. As for Graceland, every element is a delight. Neither one-act is the "best" of anything, but both are certainly good enough to share a worthy spot in recent South Florida productions.

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