Jack and Jilted

Since the early 1980s, Jane Martin has been offering the world well-received comedies and dramas such as Talking With ..., a series of monologues by diverse women, and Keely and Du, an absurdist twist on the pro-choice debate in which a pregnant woman seeking an abortion is kidnapped by right-to-life terrorists. Initially welcomed as a female playwright with a unique voice -- particularly since there are so few well-known, often-produced women dramatists in this country -- Martin turns out not to be who she seemed. Although most of her plays debut at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors' Theatre in Louisville, no one has ever seen the gal there, or anywhere else. A few years ago, critics began speculating that Martin was not a woman at all but Jon Jory, artistic director of Actors' Theatre. By now, although he has never officially acknowledged it, most theater folk are convinced that Jane is Jon.

Florida Shakespeare Theatre (FST), in its plush digs at the Biltmore Hotel, has mounted Jane-Jon's latest work, Jack and Jill, as the second show of its season. I first saw this static piece, which features one-dimensional characters declaiming aphorisms instead of exchanging dialogue, at the Pope Theatre in Manalapan. After sitting through it a second time, I make this plea: Jory, unmask thyself! If only to ensure that you never write another play with a female character as vapid and irritating as Jill again and claim to be a woman while doing so.

Jack and Jill is a meet, mate, separate, meet again, fail again romance that hits all the late twentieth-century middle-class American relationship notes: problems with intimacy, fear of commitment, pursuing careers versus having babies. Throw in pot smoking, love making, and plate breaking. And of course a divorce. Instant two-act play. Unfortunately Jane-Jon forgot to add heart.

FST's production opens promisingly with melancholy piano music setting a reflective tone. Jack (Juan F. Cejas, who also directs) and Jill (Susanne Kreitman) enter and sit on chairs at opposite ends of an otherwise bare stage. Jack spots Jill across what we realize is a library; she brushes off his pick-up lines. The second scene finds us in Jill's apartment, with the duo awkwardly talking about sex in fragmented, staccato phrases -- just about the only dialogue in the entire script that sounds as if real people are speaking. Suddenly, they're married. Just as suddenly, she's bitching about having to follow him to California for his job. Then she's in medical school. Then she's smashing wedding china on the floor.

By the shattered-dishes scene, Cejas seems to lose interest in his character. Who can blame him? As written, Jack's a cipher, and it will take more than convincing acting to bring him to life; the character needs a blood transfusion. As the actor's energy level plummets, Jack becomes more and more ghost-like, fading away as the minutes pass. Kreitman's Jill continues vacillating between discontent and aggressiveness for no discernible reason until the couple comes together for a tender moment at the end of the act. This kindles the hope that the piece may actually go somewhere in the second half. It doesn't.

Amazingly, Kreitman keeps the abrasive Jill alive and, at times, even crackling. She gives an admirable performance in a thankless role. I look forward to seeing what she can do in a part about an authentic human being, not a stick figure who spouts diluted feminism.

If I'm being hard, it's because this play is too easy. It takes the obvious route at every chance, exploiting a simplistic idea of a modern male-female relationship: She's tough; he's a mushball. What a radical reversal of traditional roles! It relies on facile techniques to nail the thin-as-onion-skin text to the wall: short, snapshot-size scenes bridged by asides to the audience; a backstage crew wandering on and off the stage with props and costumes. And the play confuses dramatic conflict and disagreement: Whatever he says, she opposes, and vice versa. There's a "Let's write one about relationships" stench to it all, and an abundance of warmed-over self-help jargon delivered with nary a shred of irony: "Males from infancy have more space." "I must not build my life around someone else." And this scintillating exchange:

Jill: "It's a question of identity."
Jack: "It's a question of commitment."
Artistic director Cejas dazzled us with an impassioned rendition of Strange Snow, FST's inaugural production in its new home this past September, confirming his reputation as a risk-taking talent. Snow was to be followed by two musicals playing in rep during November and December, with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra slated for this month. After a parting of the ways with its co-producers and delays in building an outdoor amphitheater for the Shakespeare productions, however, FST was forced to revamp its season.

In theory, Jack and Jill must have seemed a clever solution. It's a contemporary work about a man and a woman who cannot communicate -- most of us can relate to that. And a small cast and a minimal set render the play relatively inexpensive and quick to get up on its feet. Unfortunately this choice by FST and Cejas is a risk that doesn't take.

Stage Whispers
News from the trenches of the diva wars: Faye Dunaway stood poised to don Norma Desmond's glitter gowns in the Los Angeles run of Sunset Boulevard when Glenn Close left to play the role on Broadway in 1994 -- until the show's creator Andrew Lloyd Webber closed the West Coast production, dumping Dunaway. He claimed she could not sing. A lawsuit followed, with a reported million-dollar-plus out-of-court settlement awarded to the actress to compensate for her loss of face. But, like a phoenix emerging from the ashes, a real diva will rise again. Oscar-winner Dunaway recently landed the plum role of opera legend Maria Callas in the national touring production of Terrence McNally's Master Class, coming to South Florida this March.

Set in a classroom at Juilliard, where Callas, in her later years, takes on the training of young singers, Master Class was written by McNally as a star vehicle for Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony Award for her remarkable performance. (McNally's script copped the Tony for Best Play, as well -- his second win in a row). When Caldwell finished her tenure, Patti LuPone assumed star position; she is currently holding court on-stage in New York. (LuPone, of course, originated the role of silent screen queen Desmond in London's Sunset. She was shunted aside by Webber in favor of Close when the megahit moved to the States; fickle, fickle Sir Andrew.)

Caldwell and LuPone may cast long shadows, but Dunaway is certainly a dramatic force to be reckoned with. She has immortalized her share of memorable women on-screen: Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde; Evelyn Mulray in Chinatown; Diana Christensen in Network; and Joan Crawford, one of the screaming-meemie prima donnas of all time, in Mommie Dearest. In a review of the Boston touring show, Variety asserts that Dunaway "claims [the role of Callas] as her own," delivering "a full-size bravura characterization" while holding "the play and audience in the palm of her hand." More good news: The tour retains the original Broadway production team, including director Leonard Foglia, set designer Michael McGarty, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, and costume designer Jane Greenwood. Class is in session from March 11 to 23 at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse, Palm Beach (407-659-3310) and March 25 to April 13 at the Parker Playhouse, Fort Lauderdale (954-763-2444).

Jack and Jill.
Written by Jane Martin; directed by Juan F. Cejas; with Susanne Kreitman and Juan F. Cejas. Through February 1. For information call 446-1119 or see "Calendar Listings.

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Pamela Gordon