The truest comment made by a politician in recent history was uttered by Jimmy Carter, when he stated flatly, "Life is not fair." Indeed. Take the case of the ACME Acting Company, struggling through scores of financial difficulties, versus the Coconut Grove Playhouse, with its multimillion-dollar annual budget. The state helps support the latter, while the former is left to grab any leftover loose change. Yet this week ACME presented James McLure's hilarious and heartbreaking profile of irrevocably damaged Vietnam veterans A PVT. Wars A in a production worthy of becoming a major local hit, while Coconut Grove squandered more tax dollars on two has-been vaudevillians/mimes in Him, Her & You, a pointless blight of boredom written by Robert Shields, starring him and his long-time partner, Lorene Yarnell.
Juan Cejas, artistic director of ACME, is hardly ignorant of the injustice of his predicament. On the opening night of McLure's play, he told the PVT. Wars audience that in the spirit of the bold creativity offered by our state theater, he was considering dumping ACME's New Playwrights' Festival this summer and running Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring the Captain & Tennille instead. Of course, he was only jesting; you should still plan to subscribe to ACME's new festival. But Cejas was right on target about the local tendency to direct the big bucks not to theatrical courage but rather to bland material starring exhausted semi-famous "stars." Remember the Grove's Pia Zadora tribute? Or that Playhouse-conceived mess with Anthony Newley, Once Upon a Song? As Pete Seeger said, when will they ever learn?
PVT. Wars, on the other hand, written in 1978 as a one-act and expanded by McLure in recent years, emerges as potent and bold, mixing humor with poignancy to the point where a lump forms in your throat. Mentally and physically scarred Viet vets Gately (whose brain absorbed so many hard drugs that all he can do is fix the same radio day after day), Silvio (whose genitals were excised by shrapnel and who now flashes nurses and bullies people in order to prove his masculinity), and Natwick (a wealthy lad with a nasty wound and a superior attitude veiling severe insecurity) become unlikely comrades in the VA hospital where they hide, pretending they can cope with the luckless cards life has dealt them. In a series of quick takes A short scenes, monologues, tableaus A the characters interact and attempt to add spice to the endlessly bleak routine they must endure. Silvio tries to teach Gately the art of seducing women, Gately develops convoluted theories about America's "free enterprise" system, and Natwick serves as entertainment director, haughtily introducing to the patients a series of grade B-minus movies. They even pull childish pranks on each other; Silvio glues Natwick's hand to a coffee cup, and both Natwick and Silvio mischievously steal radio parts from Gately. The gut-punching tragedy reveals itself slowly to both the audience and the characters in the course of the action, as the realization dawns that nothing, not even love and friendship, can heal these fractured souls.
McLure, author of contemporary classics Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon, writes snap and crackle dialogue with a weightier layer beneath the slick interchanges. Within every joke lies a more cynical interpretation; within the monologues lurk sharp criticisms of American society. When a play can work on two such levels A as a laugh-filled, entertaining evening or as a dark glimpse into hopeless lives A it represents dramatic writing at its finest.
To serve McLure's great craft, ACME gathered together an artful crew. Director Gail Garrisan, veteran of the famed Circle Repertory Lab in New York, seamlessly stages the collection of numerous short scenes that steadily build in intensity. As Gately, the hillbilly who keeps the peace within the odd trio, Robert Wolfe is the perfect straight man; his accent and personality remain true to McLure's intentions. With subtle gestures and restrained emotions, he nevertheless allows his character to silently speak volumes about agony and loss. Owning the most aggressive role, Peter Paul de Leo as Silvio embodies psychosis and rage, again without ringing false, and manages to give his bully a heart worthy of evoking sympathy. At the same time, de Leo's command of comic timing and physical humor add a tremendous amount of energy to the production. Frank Marty's performance in Act One comprises the only minor weak link; his Natwick flits around too nervously and he too often artificially "plays the joke" instead of letting it come naturally from a role that should typify the wealthy, anal-retentive jerk. Marty finally slows down and fits more into Gately's preppie rhythms in the second act.
To help make life a little more fair, and help yourself to a fine evening at the theater in the process, go see PVT. Wars. You won't be disappointed, and you'll be doing a good deed for the artistic cosmos.
Or, to waste money and wallow in boredom, you could choose the vapid Him, Her & You, performed by Shields and Yarnell, who started out as street mimes, briefly had a TV series in the early Seventies, and who now can't seem to get a single joke off the ground. In a series of skits with no thematic glue, Shields does the old man-in-the-box and robot-mime routines, Yarnell tap-dances competently, and the duo teams up for a sickly sweet silent ode to love through the different stages of life, the creativity of which brings to mind a Rod McKuen poem or a Hallmark card.
Shields dominates, even to the extent that his Western-influenced jewelry is on sale in the lobby. The earrings look especially nice; it's a shame you have to buy a ticket to get at them. Maybe he should put his glorious show business past behind him and nurture his paintings and crafts in his Arizona home; his newest concept A adding irritating sound effects to mime A certainly doesn't work, a fact this show emphatically proves. Yarnell reportedly works with physically challenged and problem children in her dance studio in Arizona, a much more worthwhile effort than the one she's making now on stage.
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Playwrights take note: Key West's second annual theater festival, slated for September 22 through October 3, wants to develop some totally original work. Festival co-director Nancy Holtkamp points out that "Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Ernest Hemingway all lived and worked here," so if you nurture the dream of joining such company, write for additional info to the Key West Theatre Festival, PO Box 992, Key West, FL 33041, or call 305-292-3725.
The ever-so-slowly and carefully emerging Miami Skyline Theatre finally announced its company members for the first season and the shows in which they'll perform. The inaugural season opens November 26 with You Can't Take It With You, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic classic by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Next comes a new musical called Lucky Guy, about a star rising to the top of the recording industry, followed by the powerful shocker by Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, given a stunning play reading by the Skyline at New Theatre last year. The season closes with Once Upon a Mattress, that old singing Princess and the Pea thing. Maybe they'll do something good with it. Best of luck to the Skyline, and congratulations to the local actors, dancers, and singers who won a steady place in this promising new company.
When a play can work as a laugh-filled evening or as a dark glimpse into hopeless lives it represents dramatic writing at its finest.