Theater in the Square

The solid triumph of Bill Clinton and the brutal lashing of the religious right suggest that the country is ready to move forward again instead of twenty steps back. With a renewed spirit of hope, the mass audience heads to the laboratory, resolved to try brave experiments, such as saluting a president who dodged the draft and at least held a joint in his hand.

"This is the age of miracles and wonders," sang Paul Simon, and he may finally prove himself right.

The fever for change sweeping the country infected South Florida theater recently and bore two dramatic experiments -- one a hopeful indication of things to come, the other a dismal failure. Although the latter production stank worse than month-old cod, it was an original work, and any type of dramatic tinkering remains more welcome than another revival of a play I read in high school and by this time know by heart.

The first brave experimenters belong to the Lunatic Theater company, a new group premiering with one of the greatest one acts written in the past ten years: John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. The piece, first unveiled in 1984, enjoyed at least one other excellent production in this area by ACME Acting Company. Now Lunatic shines it up again by using a relatively new formula called site-specific theater, in which the play is performed in the venue suggested by the playwright. If the plot unfolds in a church, rent a church; if it's a sleazy bar, put it there. No need to build massive scenery to invoke a mood. No need to find a permanent space. Every theater up North that's tried it has enjoyed healthy success.

Shanley's poignant ode to love among the losers opens in a dark neighborhood bar, very late at night. Lunatic wisely chose Washington Square, a dark neighborhood bar, to present the work. The audience sits at tables, smokes cigarettes, drinks beer, and people occasionally saunter to and from the toilets behind the stage. You're literally in Shanley's universe -- a voyeur -- and it adds much to the work. To get this kind of effect in a conventional venue, the set design alone would cost thousands.

Like most of Shanley's work, anxiety-ridden, hot-headed Italians from the Bronx are on display, this time a man and woman with miserable lives who sit near each other in the bar and strike up an odd conversation. For example, the opening lines:

DANNY: How 'bout a pretzel?
ROBERTA: No. They're mine.
DANNY: You ain't gonna eat all of 'em. Lemme have one.
ROBERTA: Fuck off.

From this combative introduction, a last-ditch attempt at romance develops between Danny -- who can't stop beating up everyone on the block and who's dubbed "The Beast" at work -- and Roberta, a divorced mother with a perverse family relationship. To describe anything else would ruin the surprises; just get set for rage, pain, frustration, and tenderness. Shanley takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride, and makes it so fast and furious he never loses your attention. Danny isn't about big issues; the play simply shows how bad life can get and how good it could be if we stopped screwing ourselves.

Of course, a great play turns to sludge with bad actors and the wrong director. Fortunately, Lunatic knows what it's doing. Blaine Dunham -- a cross between Michelle Pfeiffer and Debbie Harry -- haunts the space as the tormented Roberta. With dark, drab hair surrounding the face of a shopworn angel, Dunham gives her character a jumpy, aching soul. Even more stunning is the work of Shawn O'Brien, who transcends simple honesty to become Danny. He's got dat Bronx bully down perrfuctly. I shud know. I cum frum da Bronx.

Battling bad mikes and air conditioner noise, the actors need to project their voices more in this setting, although the night I was there the play soon silenced the crowd. In South Florida when no one speaks a word during the entire show, you suspect that the dropping down of the Ten Commandments or something equally miraculous is taking place.

Director Susan Karrie Braun, creator of the Miami Arts Asylum, guides the actors to the right interpretation and stages perfectly, not afraid to let people sit for an extended period of time, thereby allowing dramatic action to rise from words rather than constant movement. The scenic design by Ricardo Lopez Parata must be highly praised for his original, small-budget but effective bits that enhance further the dark Washington Square space.

If more thespians realize that many South Beach clubs have stages and lights and are rarely filled before 10:00 p.m., we may have a marriage made in paradise. A new wave of plays done on the Beach in these clubs could help the plays' producers by lowering overhead and help the bar with added booze sales in off-hours.

I'd like to add one thing more about Danny. I performed the role of Roberta for eight weeks in New York many years ago. (Yes, Virginia, I worked in theater before writing about it.) Consequently, I worried slightly about my objectivity in reviewing the performance. Once you do a role, you often criticize others doing the same part in order to boost your own ego. But Blaine Dunham streaked past me, so much so that I saw everything I'd missed and was suitably humbled.

As for experiments that blow up in your face, there's Cloverleaf Crisis at the Drama Center. The number to call for reservations is 570-9115, but leave the phone on the hook. This new musical -- in the bitch-camp vein of Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch, and other purveyors of intentionally ridiculous postmodern farce -- misses the mark completely. It's the first major blunder from artistic director (and director of this play) David Spangler. Without plot, point, or wit, the show's not funny enough to be camp, and too cretinesque to be real. While Spangler and the three actors (in an assortment of roles), try hard to rescue this bomb, the script undermines their efforts. Subtitled The Emma Sue Smerger Story, it concerns a cosmetician accused of polluting her trailer park with hair dyes. That's it, folks. The singular bright spot in the production belongs to Brick Hartney, the only actor I know of to play the husband, his wife, and his potential mistress all in the same show. In drag, Brick's a dream as Emma Sue and as the televangelist Rev. Billy Ryan. Unfortunately, he also cowrote Cloverleaf with James Arntz, so I can't totally forgive him. Brick, stick to acting.

Coming from New York -- where I saw hundreds of moronic new pieces through the years, along with new gems that have evolved into evergreens today -- I know that if South Florida truly turns from cruise ship fare to theatrical experiments, you have to take the good with the bad. It's worth it. At least some people have started thinking, tinkering with the formula a wee bit more. Keep going.

DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Susan Karrie Braun; with Blaine Dunham and Shawn O'Brien. At Washington Square, 645 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, through December 5. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $7 in advance, $10 at door. Call 874-1977.


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