If it seems like New Theatre's latest production has an extra spring in its step — if the set design, lighting, and actors appear unusually dynamic — it might be because the peripatetic company has finally found a decent home.
More than decent, in fact. Since 2012, with the razing of its then-decade-old theater in Coral Gables, the company has had trouble finding a proper performance venue. For about a season and a half, it produced plays at Miami's Roxy Performing Arts Center, a former movie theater turned children's performing arts school, located in an unimpressive strip mall. After a while, neither of the Roxy's theaters seemed to work, so directors ended up carving new audience spaces on the stages themselves, behind the curtains. Last October, county officials cut New Theatre's Roxy experiment mercifully short after citing the venue for water and sewage problems. The company promptly packed up and presented its next scheduled production at Artistic Vibes, a warehouse space near the Falls.
And now, after the collapse of four permanent homes in its 27-year history, New Theatre has forged a deal with the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, a 2-year-old, strikingly modern arts colossus with Frank Gehry-style architecture. (The M Ensemble, another Miami-based gypsy theater of late, has also found a new home at SMDCAC.) Housed in one of the center's two boutique spaces — the 129-seat Lab Theater — New Theatre now enjoys the benefits of a large cultural institution's marketing largesse and, hopefully, its subscriber base.
Visiting Hours: Through March 2 at New Theatre at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay; 786-573-5300; smdcac.org. Tickets cost $26 to $30.
One thing is certain: It picked a quality piece of a drama to relaunch its brand. Visiting Hours, a Florida premiere by Miami native David Caudle, is set affectionately in his childhood metropolis; keep an ear out for references to Coral Castle, CocoWalk, and Joe's Stone Crab.
It's here, in an autumnally colored guesthouse of a wealthy friend/relative, where Marian (Barbara Sloan) and her longtime partner, Beth (Madelin Marchant), return from a Saturday-morning doughnut run to find a stranger in their home. Her name is Shelly (Maria Corina Ramirez), a manipulative little runaway who may or may not have broken into the residence. But none of that matters: She has news about Marian's son Paul (Alex Alvarez), whom Marian hasn't seen in two years. He's in prison, which doesn't surprise Beth, but Shelly swears by his innocence, claiming an aggravated assault charge was blown out of proportion. And she could really use $2,000 for his bond, or something. Actually, make it $3,000. Did she mention she's going to have Paul's baby?
So begins a slow-burning, perceptive chamber drama about sacrifice and betrayal, honesty and self-delusion. In one way or another, Marian is using Beth, Shelly is using Paul, Paul is using Shelly and Beth and Marian, and Marian and Beth are using Nat (Kitt Marsh), the wealthy spinster from whom they're renting their supposedly rundown bungalow (Alyiece Moretto's set design looks plenty livable). In Caudle's worldview, self-interest trumps everything else, a conclusion that other playwrights, like Neil LaBute, have reached with caustic cynicism or world-weary hopelessness. But Caudle seems to be an inherent optimist, looking for even the slightest glimmer of hope or modicum of change in this tragic study of human foibles.
Under the direction of arguably South Florida's most skilled theater freelancer, Margaret Ledford, each actor plunges deep into his or her emotional well. The criminally underused Alvarez, who has proven he can be quirky and funny (GableStage's The Motherfucker With the Hat) as well as monstrous and harrowing (Promethean Theatre Company's The Unseen), gravitates mostly to the latter as Paul. His sheer size makes him an intimidating force when surrounded by slender women, and his Paul is a self-destructive loose cannon, a psychopath careening toward an early grave. It's a performance built equally on small gestures — sniffing like a cokehead after convincing his mother he's clean — and uncontrollable, animalistic maneuverings, like a bipolar Stanley Kowalski. He switches from rage to regret in a heartbeat while suggesting that both could be the work of an emotionless manipulator. When he's left to really explore his character, which is mostly in Act II, he seems positively possessed by him.
Ramirez, who imbued her character in New Theatre's excellent production of Happy with the confidence of a master conductor, brings a little of that to Shelly, a young woman whose convincing stories and schizoid fits of attention-grabbing have an ulterior motive. She plays sexy and straggly at the same time, a devious dynamo whose presence in a room can warp its energy faster than a passing poltergeist.
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Sloan and Marchant make for a believable couple, each one's yin playing off the other's yang. The former is a classic motherly archetype, forever hoping there's an angel somewhere hidden in the demon seed she brought into the world. She effectively turns on the water works a couple of times, but it's the small touches that resonate the most, like the few times she reaches for her son only to have her affections ignored or rebuffed. Marchant's Beth anchors the show as its most grounded character, but she's also its least expressive performance, and it teeters at times toward emotional disconnection; it doesn't help that she rushes through a number of her lines. She stuns, finally, in an arresting confrontation and its aftermath in the second act.
Marsh may be onstage the least, but she's terrific every moment she's on. She brings out Caudle's comic relief with a bayou rasp and a gin and tonic in hand, no matter how early in the morning it happens to be. She plays Nat with a drunkard's loudness and lack of self-awareness, like a bedraggled matriarch from, once again, the Tennessee Williams canon.
At this past Sunday's matinee, the only element lacking in this handsome production of an intelligent play was the number of butts in the seats. It's always difficult to relocate, and New Theatre has surely lost patrons with each location change. But the company has proven time and again that the show will always go on, even if it has to find an empty parking lot or a director's backyard. For its sake as well as for the strength of this theater community, let's hope New Theatre's U-Haul days are finally over.