Private Plays, Public Access

During the intermission of Private Lives, being staged by downtown Miami's Ramsay-Hutchison Players, a dance professor from the New World School of the Arts asked me if I review college theater. I said no and went on to explain that I am reluctant to write in-depth reviews of performances by students still honing their skills. He nodded, but I thought I detected a puzzled look in his eye. Later, during the second act, I understood his unspoken confusion -- the stumbling cast we were both watching boasted only one person who makes acting a career.

The mantle of professional used to be bestowed on an actor upon receipt of a union card from the national Actor's Equity Association, which prohibited the performer from appearing on-stage unless under contract. Today, with only a handful of local companies operating under the union's rules for nonprofit regional theaters, and with many of the established venues signing only the occasional Equity "guest artist" contract, you're more likely to find valid IDs at a college bar than union cards at most South Florida cast parties. As the lines between community, showcase, resident, and regional theaters continue to blur, it's getting harder to know where you'll find professional actors.

South Beach's EDGE/Theatre, which operates on a shoestring budget in a third-floor walkup on Miami Beach's Espanola Way, exists on the fringes of professional theater, and its current offering of company producer Jim Tommaney's play The Private Agenda places it more in the category of an educational playhouse. While the production provides an optimistic glimpse of EDGE's future, as shown by the growth of its fledgling actors -- whose frequent EDGE appearances are beginning to qualify them as a resident company -- and of the maturing of Tommaney's skills as a playwright, The Private Agenda still finds the evolving troupe in an unsteady present.

In its world premiere, The Private Agenda swirls in a kaleidoscope of fascinating images through approximately two dozen scenes that intrigue but never coalesce into a comprehensive whole. Using the Gulf War as a backdrop, Tommaney's drama plays a game of "what if," with the fictional occupants of the Oval Office orchestrating a military action to pump up the economy and raise their popularity in the polls (a theory, incidentally, that made the rounds in left-wing political circles during the actual Gulf War). Thinly based on George Bush, Tommaney's Republican president George Gorse (Chris Vicchiollo) also has a wife named Barbara and was once head of the CIA.

Sitting beneath framed images of Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial, the former head spook uses passwords to order assassinations as part of his top-secret plan to ensure his own place in history. His hopes for the future, however, spring from his experiences of the past, leading Gorse to embark on the Gulf War in eagerness to prove his strength and compensate for suppressed feelings of inadequacy he developed as an abused child.

Mindful that his scheme could lead to impeachment, he leaves the dirty work to his cutthroat chief of staff John (Michael W. Brooks, Jr.), a predatory yuppie who enjoys pulling the strings of power while knowing that his kinky sexual practices will preclude him from winning political office himself. The two recruit hard-bitten press secretary Carla Hernandez (Isabela Mendes) to sell their game plan to the media. A jaded cynic with a vodka-and-Valium past, she proves an able spin doctor, even though the machinations begin to sicken her. When her sound bites can't compete with televised images of bleeding American troops, the presidential staff scrambles to control the escalating military crisis.

Their efforts come too late to help Jane Martinez (Lisa Boggio) and her unemployed auto plant husband Bill (Emilio Plana), who have sent their only offspring, Steve (Carlos Rodriguez) and Joe (John Campagnoli), off to war. We learn of the family's struggles in soliloquies spoken directly to the audience that too often tell us rather than dramatically show us their anguish. To its credit, The Private Agenda hits home with emotional snapshots that can be found in anyone's family album: Steve and his Gulf War buddy Annie (Andria Angora) recall the first time each made love, as a prelude to getting intimate themselves; Bill reads a letter he sent to Steve confiding the military exploits that haunted the boy's grandfather; Bill and Jane torment themselves by wondering if their desire for grandchildren would make homosexual Joe's death more bearable than heterosexual Steve's.

In such moments The Private Agenda delivers a powerful human coda to the Gulf War, but the script's scattershot digressions on presidential neuroses, pleas for gay equality, and unexplained governmental conspiracies make getting a handle on the dramatic action no easier than grasping the underlying causes and political aftermath of the war itself. As the sprawling scenes unfold, director Philip Nolan coaxes satisfactory performances from his inexperienced cast, leading us through the play's winding story lines but never quite illuminating them. Brooks alone stands out, deftly depicting the manipulative chief of staff's power-hungry rationalizations by flipping out his cellular phone to order a CIA hit or a hooker with equal gusto.

Doubling as set designer, playwright Tommaney creates an ingeniously sparse set of pop-down Murphy army cots and foldaway tent curtains. If he were to apply the same economy to his script, The Private Agenda will have a chance of fulfilling its promise.

On the face of it, the prospect of an all-male gay version of Noël Coward's 1930 comedy Private Lives would seem to herald the arrival of a giant turkey a full month before Thanksgiving. Yet as the inaugural effort of the Ramsay-Hutchison Players (a fundraising arm and therapeutic program of the People with AIDS Coalition of Dade County), this wacky Private Lives strips off the stylized black-and-white, Art Deco shroud that smothers so many Coward revivals. Its novel staging portraying the play's two married couples as gay men (with one in drag) astonished me into hoots of laughter at jokes I know by heart.

Enjoying the first afternoon of their honeymoon on their Parisian hotel room's balcony, Elyot (Vincent J. Scotto) tries to set a romantic mood with martinis, even though his demure wife Sybil (Christian J. Carrano) continues to bring up her new husband's previous marriage to Amanda. In this drag-queen persona, Sybil changes from Coward's girlish twit into a man who has made a lifestyle choice: "Just because I'm feminine," Sybil tells Elyot, "it doesn't mean that I'm crafty and calculating. I hate these half-masculine queens who go banging about."

Meanwhile the honeymooners on the adjacent balcony emerge and reveal themselves to be Elyot's ex Mandy (John Gamble) and his new spouse Victor (Ron Jakubisin). Wearing only a towel around his waist, Mandy tries to distract Victor from questioning him about his first marriage. "The woman -- in italics," Mandy decrees, "should always retain a certain amount of alluring feminine mystery for the man -- also in italics."

Before long Mandy and Elyot have spied each other and run off to Mandy's apartment to rekindle their romance, leaving their new mates to trail after them. At ease in their love nest, Mandy and Elyot are soon pummeling each other in their old rough-and-tumble sex games. When Victor and Sybil show up late one morning in Mandy's living room, the urbane banter the four engage in over coffee and pastries is less reminiscent of 1930s sophistication than it is a modern depiction of the phony civilities found at a gay brunch from Hell.

Yet director Hal Brooks forgoes any outrageous gay shtick to play the comedy -- forgive the expression -- straight. Although some aspects of the plot, such as those dealing with England's divorce laws, don't translate into this alternative take on Private Lives, others click in new ways. For example, despite all our advances toward sexual equality, Elyot and Mandy's slapstick fistfights are simply funnier than the sight of a man hitting a woman. And Coward's glittering dialogue regains its flash in Elyot's theory that the Vatican would be pleased by his reunion with Mandy: "Catholics don't recognize divorce," he tells her. "We're married as much as we ever were.... It's nice to think they'd sort of back us up."

But a great script and inspired direction go only so far, and the entire cast was groping for lines and settling into their characters on opening night. As the production's sole career actor, Scotto assuredly drives the action but overlooks his character's self-absorption. Regarding the others: Gamble conveys Mandy's flirtatious streak yet misses his self-assured unconventionality; Jakubisin nails Victor's bewilderment but not his pomposity; and Carreno carries off Sybil's dullness while missing her cunning. Better realized are Patricka Hegstrom's stylish period sets and costumes.

In his song "I Went to a Marvelous Party," Coward describes going to a bash at which "we all had to do what the people we knew might be doing 100 years hence." I doubt Coward ever imagined a gay version of his Private Lives 67 or even 167 years into the future. Still, despite my reservations about the performances, I have to borrow a line from the same song to admit, "I couldn't have liked it more."

The Private Agenda. Written by Jim Tommaney; directed by Philip Nolan; with Chris Vicchiollo, Michael W. Brooks, Jr., and Isabela Mendes. Through November 9. For more information call 531-6083.

Private Lives. Written by Noël Coward; directed by Hal Brooks; with Vincent J. Scotto and John Gamble. Through November 9. For more information call 573- 9717.

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