Don't Be Absurd

There's a certain time in every would-be playwright's life when he or she feels compelled to imitate the so-called "absurdist" authors such as Pinter, Beckett, or Ionesco. In many cases, because the tyros don't understand that these grand masters do not randomly choose their symbolic dialogue and situations, the novices end up writing nonsensical works with irritatingly obscure dialogue that reveals nothing. Perhaps the point of the story makes sense to them, but without the genius of a playwright such as Pinter, it means nothing to anyone else.

Florida author Sarah E. Bewley's -- Short Time of Near Perfection is the perfect example of a clumsy, annoying attempt to be consciously esoteric and to mimic the non sequiturs, curious phrasing, pauses in action, and repetitive style of the Pinter-Beckett school. I have the distinct feeling that Ms. Bewley, having won acclaim for last year's piece, the cleaner, more realistic, well-written Power in the Blood, has now plunged her gifts into the doomed netherworld of contrived intellectualism, believing herself to be beyond telling a simple story in a direct fashion. Unfortunately, telling a symbolic story is clearly beyond her talents at this time, as this new play proves.

If my criticism seems unduly harsh, it partly may be caused by my disappointment. Under the guidance of Dr. Ilse Earl, the Miami Actor's Studio, small though it may be (seating about 40 at most), has presented some of the most interesting productions of the past year. With this newest play of Ms. Bewley's, I wonder whether someone at the Studio has taken leave of their senses. There is, frankly, nothing to recommend about this play or its presentation; in fact, most community theaters perform better than this. As South Florida starts to inch toward dramatic excellence -- as it certainly has over the past two years -- artistic directors such as Dr. Earl must take care that, at the very least, simple competence appears on their stages, or else they should give up the title of professional theater.

Bewley's story involves three characters who meet on a beach and say moronic things to each other, such as "I'm having a happiness attack. An attack of happiness." Teddy is beset with a learning disorder, but the script seems to equate this with a state of retardation. Lazarus is a soldier from some war, poisoned by germ warfare and slowly dying. Laura is a middle-age widow with nothing to do but look at the water. They meet, say they love each other, and together try to find happiness. One dies, one goes off, one stays and does nothing. Not one moment of the play is honest or engaging. We are told about events and feelings rather than seeing them, and the characters are so thinly sketched they make the part of the sea the most interesting role.

To add to the pointlessness of viewing this work, the acting is worse than poor. Debrah Mello in particular hasn't the foggiest idea how to read lines, taking strange pauses and emphasizing words that she thinks are important to the script. Randolph Le Roi as Lazarus gives a similarly awkward, wooden delivery that is almost painful to watch. Only Jesse Erbel as Teddy almost succeeds at the art of acting, but when the script calls for him to keep running off stage to swim, then hop back on stage soaking wet (this happens no fewer than a dozen times), even he comes off as consistently ridiculous.

If Ms. Bewley doesn't want to inflict such drivel on future audiences, she should learn how to write an absurdist-type play by attending New Theatre's extraordinary production of Other Places, four short plays by Harold Pinter grouped together with great thought and symbolic impact by director Rafael de Acha. In each piece, Pinter plays with language to marvelous serious and comic effect. Each play perfectly evokes the same mood of alienation and isolation. Even better, an attentive audience will have no trouble understanding what Pinter is trying to say, even when his characters speak in a rather odd fashion.

The first piece, Victoria Station, concerns a London cabbie physically lost in his own city, trying frantically to communicate with an emotionally disenfranchised dispatcher. Both men are fed up with their lives, but find it impossible to make contact and comfort each other. The next short play, Family Voices -- a true work of art -- opens with three characters seated in separate corners: a mother, a dead father, and a son, who read a series of potent and truthful letters they wish they could write to each other. Subtly but poignantly presenting the dilemmas and frustrations of the dysfunctional family, Pinter also manages to weave an intriguing story about the son's journey into the midst of another mixed-up clan, which, despite its eccentricities, seems preferable to the mistakes made by his own kin.

If any piece in this program is an awkward fit bordering on weak, it's Applicant, a Monty Python-like sketch of a nervous interviewee dealing unsuccessfully with a sadistic head of personnel. Still, its merit lies in its message, which does fit artfully into the evening as a whole. Again, in this short comic skit, no one hears anyone but themselves, and so they inflict pain on others. Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do, Pinter implies. People live in their own personal tales, in bubbles cut off from each other; no matter how hard they try, they cannot exchange simple honesty and affection.

The entire second act of the New Theatre production is devoted to Pinter's -- Kind of Alaska, a dark, strangely comedic piece about a woman who wakes up after being comatose for 29 years. How she comes to understand her predicament and which pieces of information she chooses to accept from the relatives who awaken her expresses Pinter's view of our selective listening abilities and how we unconsciously and constantly alter the truth to save our sanity in this quicksand called life.

Without exception, the acting in all four pieces is exceptional, with an ensemble of four actors assuming many parts. Particularly excellent is Pedar McCormack in his role as the son in Family Voices and Marjorie O'Neill-Butler as Deborah, the lady who slept through her youth, in -- Kind of Alaska. As in New Theatre's previous superb production of Mountain, de Acha seamlessly directs the action and conducts the simple scenic changes between pieces with the fluidity of a ballet.

If you're looking for light entertainment that requires little thought and even less attention, Pinter is not for you. But if you crave an evening where a great writer delicately weaves together truth, symbol, and human behavioral oddities into a moving tapestry of enthralling theater, don't miss Other Places. As far as Bewley's sad imitation of this style, why see an obvious fake when you can savor the peerless original?

Stage Notes
If anyone out there wonders why I haven't yet reviewed the Coconut Grove Playhouse's season opener, Breaking Legs, it's because there is truly little to say. Tom Dulack's ultra-lightweight piece about lovable mobsters who decide to finance a Broadway play lacks wit, a premise, a believable plot, or interesting characters. Basically, it's a third-rate sitcom with mediocre acting by every member of the cast. Still, some people salivate over this type of thing. If television shows like Three's Company or Mr. Belvedere tickle your funny bone, then you might want to see Breaking Legs. As for me, I'm clueless as to why such garbage gets produced in New York or in this neighborhood, or anywhere. Just pray that this one doesn't go into the time capsule; I'd hate future civilizations to find out just how shallow we became.

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