Deep Trouble in Shallow Waters

Not long after the MGM lion roars, the camera pans over a group of young Broadway hopefuls. Sure of their talent, these would-be stars nonetheless worry they'll never get their big break. "Gosh, if they'd just give us a chance," one begins, only to be drowned out by the swelling soundtrack as a boyish Mickey Rooney dances in to save the day. "It's gonna be swell," he tells the kids. "Crabby old Mrs. Hemple isn't so bad after all. She's lending us her barn, and now we can finally put on our show!" Cut to costumes and sets miraculously appearing, and then the curtain rises to a thrilled audience including -- can it be? -- Mr. Big-Shot Producer. Before the credits roll, the gang's theatrical futures are assured.

Depression-era celluloid fantasies still inspire emerging artists and playwrights who band together in showcase productions. But harsh realities usually intervene: Theater companies that can afford to train actors and nurture new works cannot risk their financial security by casting unknowns or producing anything except crowd pleasers. As a result, smaller companies, short on everything but passion, assume the task. Frequently a stage and (with luck) an audience are the only things such companies can offer fledgling artists. Budgets do not allow for more than token salaries, forcing rehearsals to be squeezed around day jobs; sets and costumes can cost less than $100, straining dramatic credibility; and minuscule staffs don't include literary managers who can help playwrights clarify and polish their words. While actors in such productions can gain hard-won experience, improve their skills, and add to their resumes, playwrights don't fare as well, often prematurely exposing new works to critical and commercial scrutiny. Two current local premieres illustrate the dismaying consequences of rushing underdeveloped works to the stage.

Presenting its seventeenth production since starting up less than two years ago, EDGE/Theatre brings a little of New York City's East Village showcase experience to South Beach, in a 49-seat space above a coffee shop on Espanola Way. But the cappuccino on the first floor provides far more stimulation than does the South Florida debut of Robert Coles's Barracudas.

Relaxing on a day off from their jobs at a SoBe restaurant, Jen (Liz Dennis) confides to her hunky co-worker Allie (Chris Vicchiollo) that, after three years in the party zone, she is bored by the beach scene. While she lures Allie into providing her with a new distraction, Brice (Carlos Rodriguez), one of their friends, goes home to Manhattan to defend his fun-in-the-sun lifestyle to his disapproving father (Jim Tommaney). Reunited shortly thereafter, the three young pleasure seekers slip out of their clothes and into each other's beds, while Brice's visiting father lurks nearby. Offering no climax or discernable dramatic journey, the play ends with each of the quartet en route to his or her next sensual adventure.

In only its second staging, Coles's unfocused play vacillates between thriller and melodrama, teasing the audience with sensational riddles -- Are Brice and Allie brothers? Is Allie gay? -- until the ambiguous relationships render us too confused to care. To make matters worse, we have to decipher the ponderous, introspective ramblings that pose as dialogue. A case in point: As Brice argues that his father wants to live vicariously through him, their disagreement becomes so derailed by obscure tangents that it's unclear if the two have severed all ties. Coles's dialogue has no continuity in tone; he shifts from lyrical thoughts on moonlight to graphic sexual slang to beat poetry's repetition of phrases. With its vapid dialogue and content, Barracudas mimics the shallowness of the lifestyle it indicts. A documentary following twentysomethings as they obsess about emotions might work on MTV's The Real World, but it isn't enough on the stage, where feelings need to be conveyed and actions clearly communicated.

The cast members, still shaky and settling into their roles at the early performance I attended, were unable to bring together the fragmented script; they concentrated more on remembering their lines than on climbing inside their characters. Because most of the play's scenes end with two characters beginning to make love, director Michael Francis's main objectives -- given his blocking and pacing -- appear to be disrobing and maneuvering the actors on to the next titillating moment. Yet for all of its bedroom escapades, the production suffers from a deficiency of sexual tension.

Whereas the performances and direction don't bolster the weak script, Barracudas's set design does lend visual support. Jim Tommaney, doing triple duty as actor, set designer, and EDGE artistic director, pulls off an amazing feat of budgetary and physical wizardry, managing four set changes on the small raised platform that serves as the theater's stage. The fourteen epigrams that line the theater's walls ("A clenched fist cannot let go"; "Pleasure is its own punishment"; "Umbilical cord ... or leash?") hint at the dramatic possibilities never realized on-stage.

Regardless of its present rough state, Barracudas could still have a future -- if the success of Robert Kunikoff's The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine is any indication. The third of four world premieres marking the eighth season of Fort Lauderdale's Public Theatre, Cha Cha Levine is enjoying an extended run at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art Auditorium; performances are scheduled next season in Tampa and San Francisco. The real "secret" here, however, is how this inept comedy made it to any stage in the first place.

As its title hints, Kunikoff's first play borrows its premise from James Thurber's 1939 short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Walter Mitty daydreamed of heroics as the United States prepared to enter World War II; here in the self-absorbed Nineties, out-of-the-closet-and-into-whatever Phillip Levine (Joe D. Russell) casts himself in comic R-rated scenarios costarring insatiable imaginary lovers (Ellen Lee and Derrick Petersen); he hopes to alleviate the boredom of his twelve-year relationship with steady, reliable Jonathan (Richard Marlow). Talks with his lesbian best friend Susan (Lori Dolan) and misinterpreted sessions with his therapist (also played by Ellen Lee) convince Phillip to go for it in real life, so he resurrects his old alter ego, disco devil Cha Cha. Eventually a lascivious Phillip finds he must choose between Rollerblading boy hunts or a fulfilling home life with Jonathan.

Despite its hip gay trappings, Kunikoff's play aims for mainstream acceptance by presenting the audience with nothing riskier than what can be seen on television's sanitized sitcoms. For example, although Phillip never states that he is bisexual, the inclusion of a woman in his fantasies gives the comedy a pronounced heterosexual slant. And in presenting promiscuity as a cure for midlife crisis, the script indulges in more network family-hour fiction: No one ever mentions AIDS. Previous works such as Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, Harvey Fierstein's Safe Sex, and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! poignantly created comic releases for our fears concerning AIDS. This comedy, with its emphasis on escapism and its denial of today's dating paranoia, delivers a fantasy more outrageous than those of its inventive protagonist.

Unlike the young immortals in Barracudas (who also live in an epidemic-free world), the middle-aged characters in The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine should know better. In reality, Cha Cha would have retired his dancing shoes, not because the disco had closed down but because the footwear wasn't appropriate attire at friends' memorial services. Then there are Phillip's daydreams, which never vary even though his aspirations change; the playwright misses an opportunity to provide a compelling counterpoint to Phillip's "real" life. With better intentions than skills, the hard-working actors can't make up for the script's shortcomings. Russell portrays Phillip as a whining child who changes the object of his desires but never changes himself. As his patient lover, Marlow imbues Jonathan with recognizable humanity, but in the end he loses our sympathy with an offensive, limp-wristed portrayal. Without any scripted clues, Dolan enacts the lesbian Susan as if she were an L.L. Bean model striking masculine poses, while Petersen confines his stud-muffin role to strutting around in black vinyl pants. The most heroic effort to enliven the proceedings comes from Lee, who adopts a diverting variety of accents and attitudes as Phillip's heterosexual playmate and therapist.

In addition to struggling with the formidable job of creating three-dimensional characters from a cartoon-strip script, the cast also contended with a change of director ten days into the rehearsal process, a situation that left Public Theatre executive director Vince Rhomberg to captain a sinking ship. If he spotted the play's obstacles, he failed to maneuver the production around them. And Cristopher Slavin's triptych set -- coffee nook, bedroom, and restaurant -- seems ill-conceived: When Phillip and Jonathan go to the restaurant, instead of staying in that area of the set the actors inexplicably drag the table into the bedroom and play the scene sitting on the bed.

Despite their many flaws, Barracudas and The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine are training grounds for their casts, creative teams, and playwrights. They also underscore the fact that developmental theater is a risky business for both producers and patrons -- you pay your money and you take your chances.

Barracudas. Written by Robert Coles; directed by Michael Francis; with Liz Dennis, Chris Vicchiollo, Carlos Rodriguez, and Jim Tommaney. Through April 27. For information call 531-6083.

The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine. Written by Robert Kunikoff; directed by Vince Rhomberg; with Joe D. Russell, Ellen Lee, Richard Marlow, Derrick Petersen, and Lori Dolan. Through April 27. For information call 954-568-2243.


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