At its best, Dividends is a celebration of ordinary life and a tribute to Bessie and Bernie's almost 60-year marriage, modeled, the program notes, on playwright Richards's own grandparents. Using one generation to set the other in relief, the script comments on careers, compromise, commitment, and the modern tendency to talk about everything as opposed to accepting quietly what can't be changed. But Brian Smith's direction flattens out whatever life the mostly canned script might offer. Repetitive devices such as Neal speaking directly to the audience and Bessie and Bernie moving to the side of the stage for flashbacks get old quickly. And the stage is cluttered with three sets at the same time, including Neal's studio, complete with bad paintings on its walls. I mean really bad paintings, a quarter step from paint on velvet. No wonder the guy can't get a show of his work in Manhattan.
I may not have been enthralled with the production, but the audience loved it. In fact I felt that I was participating in a new brand of interactive theater: The audience talked to the actors as if they knew them, answered questions being posed on-stage out loud from their seats, translated the Yiddish for everyone's benefit, and commented on how the show related to their own lives. (When Bernie said his father-in-law didn't like him, the woman in front of me stage-whispered, "My mother-in-law hated me, too.") What can I say? This brand of nostalgic theater does not ask hard enough questions for my taste, but it gives certain theatergoers a slice of their past that seems much-appreciated.
A not-to-be-missed series of theater events is about to descend on Miami. The Theatre League of South Florida and the Writers' Alliance are hosting two workshops by award-winning playwright and Dramatists Guild member Jeffrey Sweet: "The Craft of the Working Playwright," Saturday, February 25, noon to 5:00 p.m., at New Theatre; and "Improvisation for the Dramatist," Sunday, February 26, 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Coconut Grove Playhouse. Considered among the best in (and about) the business, the workshops are open to writers, composers, lyricists, actors, directors, and critics. Actor-writer Susan Murray, co-founder of Miami's Performing Arts Network, has taken Sweet's workshops and says they're "a must, an inspiration." Call Writers' Alliance coordinator Susan Westfall at 361-1585 for details and reservations.
Sweet also will lead a free discussion on writing for the theater at a "Playwrights' Town Meeting" on Thursday, February 23, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at the Center for the Fine Arts. Westfall notes with excitement that this is the first national collaboration between South Florida and New York's Dramatists Guild. She also hints that playwright Edward Albee might be joining the town meeting. And to round out the week, Sweet's play The Value of Names opens locally at New Theatre on Friday, February 24.