Felons and Fools

Many of my friends recently opened their mailboxes to discover something more hideous than notification of an IRS audit, more depressing than an ex-lover's wedding invitation, and more frightening than a postcard proclaiming the impending arrival of freeloading friends: a class reunion announcement. At age 44, playwright Benjie Aerenson can cruise into his reunions at Palmetto High School and the University of Miami Law School riding a theatrical buzz strong enough to dazzle even the most successful of his former classmates. Less than two months ago, Aerenson saw the first full production of one of his works when Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old was staged by the Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of its prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays. Then, not quite three weeks ago, he learned that New York's New Dramatists writers' collective had declared his Possum Play the winner of a play-writing competition for best unproduced and unpublished script.

Now Aerenson returns to Coral Gables from his current residence in New York City for the world premiere of When Cuba Opens Up at Florida Shakespeare Theatre. His homecoming boasts impressive trappings: Burt Young, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his brother-in-law role in the film Rocky, stars under the direction of off-Broadway veteran Bill Hart. But talented collaborators and sudden acclaim do not alter the fact that Aerenson remains an emerging playwright subject to a novice's missteps; in the case of When Cuba Opens Up, meaningless exchanges, unexplained actions, and meandering subplots overwhelm the play's few genuinely moving moments.

Framed by majestic palms in set designer Paul Mazer's evocative low-rent Miami Beach hotel room, the drama opens with Timmy (Burt Young) and Wayne (Greg Zittel) making themselves at home. Long-time partners in crime, the two middle-aged thieves bicker like an old married couple. When not picking apart the past, they argue about their futures as semilegitimate businessmen supplying goods to Cuba once the U.S. trade embargo ends. Worried he can't stay out of jail until then, Timmy opts for a midlife career change and becomes a pool boy at a posh golf/spa resort, leaving Wayne to hook up with a new partner, Johnny (Leo Marks).

Soon the two old cronies are sharing tales about their respective work days: Timmy has trouble adjusting to the honest life; Wayne frets that he's too old to keep up with 28-year-old Johnny on their residential breaking-and-entering sprees. As the play reaches its climax, Johnny's plan to use Timmy as his lookout for rip-offs at the resort tests the roommates' friendship, and the aroused suspicions of a police detective (Steve Wise) threaten the older felons' liberty.

The opening-night audience warmed to the Miami references sprinkled throughout the play, howling at Wayne's complaint about local drivers: "You can't beep -- the old people won't hear you and the Cubans will shoot you." Such wisecracks show that Aerenson possesses a promising comic touch, yet his decision to emphasize inconsequential robbery minutiae over the warm friendship of the aging outlaws results in an oppressively somber play.

Timmy's futile quest to turn over a new leaf is poignant, evident especially in the quiet pride and delight he takes in ironing the uniform he wears for his new job. But Timmy's newfound optimism turns to defeated helplessness when Wayne shatters his dreams by endorsing Johnny's scheme to move in on the resort. An accomplished character actor, Young seems unwilling to dominate the stage as the production's star, instead basing his portrayal on Timmy's reactions to those around him. While his approach illuminates the relationships between the characters, only a genuine star turn could enliven the play's tiresome plot devices.

As Wayne, Zittel dynamically provides the production's most cohesive performance: He engagingly transmits his small-time crook's enthusiasm for Johnny's promised big scores, and he gives a sympathetic portrayal of Wayne's disquietingly recognizable fear of aging. In the play's best-written scene, Wayne confides to Timmy that he has been having anxiety attacks and blackouts during his heists with Johnny. Afraid he's past his prime, Wayne reduces his risk of confrontation and arrest by preying on the elderly, but he's revolted to find that the incapacitated lives and antiquated homes of his victims make him feel worse. As his protege, Marks evolves from an outsider in Timmy and Wayne's clubby world -- impatient with rambling, tedious recollections -- to a desensitized hood who cruelly badgers Timmy.

Faced with the unevenness of this fledgling effort, director Hart could have better drawn on his past experience -- he served as dramaturg on the premieres of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind and Simpatico, plus Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart -- to help clarify and shape Aerenson's work. In one bit of perplexing stage business, Timmy puts a fish bowl, complete with goldfish, into the kitchen freezer at regular intervals. In another, Timmy spends the majority of the play with his arm in a sling fashioned out of a necktie, even though he continues to display full use of his hand. Whether these are examples of Aerenson's unexplained in-jokes or Young's bad choices as an actor, Hart fails to control this self-indulgence. And that's not the worst of it. In what is undoubtedly the most unnecessary and repugnant scene performed on any local stage this season, Aerenson goes beyond the play's heavy use of scatological language to send the production into the toilet (literally) when he has the police detective interrogate Timmy and Wayne -- in between grunts! -- while he's seated on a slightly hidden off-stage john.

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