11th Street one-acts

Mamet script carries cast; actors can't do the same for Shanley's dreamer

David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley belong to a select group--playwrights who have had their work interpreted by chick singers with only one name (Madonna in Mamet's case, Cher in Shanley's).

This highly significant factoid has not been lost on the 11th Street Theatre Project, which has cannily combined a one-act by each writer to create an intriguing double bill.

First up is Mamet's The Shawl, directed by Lisa Cotie, 11th Street's artistic director. Mamet has described this play as his "Twilight Zone" episode, but that pays undue homage to Rod Serling's old black-and-white creepers, rarely as well written as memory leads us to believe (I need only refer to the episode in which Joan Collins is accosted by a ten-story-tall inflatable spaceman to prove my point).

The Shawl does stray into "TZ" country, however, as it deals with the strange and spooky. It asks us, Serling-like, to "consider a man." A man with uncommon powers but a very common name: John. John is that sad commonplace--an intelligent failure. Though perceptive to the point of uncanniness, John wastes his gifts by using them to manipulate the credulous and the vulnerable into believing that he is psychic. His prime objective is to gain his victims' trust. As he explains to his protege and lover, Charles, people want to believe but they need just enough evidence to surmount their skepticism. In short, they need magic or a miracle.

John provides the above through his Holmesian powers of deduction. People have only three problems, he points out to Charles: "money, ill health, or love." He discovers which through an insidious process of elimination. Steer the conversation toward death a few times, and if your mark's eyes show no emotion, you can eliminate ill health as a worry, he explains. Consider a person's age, appearance, and marital status, and you have a pretty good idea whether love is their problem. When calculating your victim's economic status, always look at their shoes, because "anyone can buy an expensive dress."

Study people closely enough and you can gain so much insight about them that they will believe you have extrasensory powers. At that point, he concludes, their trust and their money are yours.

John offers this knowledge to Charles as the only gift he has to give, since both men are busted. To John his gift is the most valuable thing one person can give another: a profession. A painful profession, for when it is done well, "no one will see it."

Charles scorns the offer. He wants only money, or even better, the assurance that John's ability is more than a con. He, too, wants to believe that there's more to heaven and earth than the sordidness that surrounds him.

The proof of the pudding is in a sˇance John sets up with "Mrs. A," a well-to-do spinster type whose problem is money. She may or may not contest her mother's will, depending on John's ability to contact her mother's spirit during the sˇance. He does contact the mother, using a woman murdered in the 19th century as a channel. However, at the end of the sˇance he is exposed as a fraud. Or is he? The play ends on a spine-tingling note, and surprisingly for Mamet, not an F-word has been employed throughout.

It's good stuff--sly, intelligent, suspenseful, and with Mamet's usual razor-sharp eye for the nuances of "the gift." What it requires, however, is a textured, clever, and subtly ambiguous performance by the actor playing John.

Keith Grammer, who essays the part, doesn't yet have the artistic strength or depth for it. He's at a bit of a disadvantage because audiences are used to seeing superb actors like Joe Mantegna or Jack Lemmon take Mamet's lines and bolt with them, and comparisons are inevitable. In addition, he receives only middling support from Janet Cunningham as the intended gull, Mrs. A, and from Carlos Arroyo as the petulant, greedy Charles. Nevertheless, on the strength of the writing alone, The Shawl seizes your interest and doesn't let go.

The dreamer examines his pillow, on the other hand, is not nearCR>ly as well-written, but it is well-acted and -directed by Scott Osborne.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley has made a career out of creating characters who stage their own lives like operas. The formula worked particularly well in Moonstruck, where Nicolas Cage's passion for passion's sake was off-the-wall funny and endearing.

In this play, however, characters strip-mine their shallow emotions in a series of self-revelatory monologues that become increasingly tedious. "The dreamer examines his navel" might have been a more appropriate name for this piece.

The plot focuses on a young goofball named Tommy, a direct descendant of one of the most irritating whiners in all of literature--Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. Like Caulfield, Tommy can't act responsibly or even function because "the world is so messed up." The world is such a mess, in fact, Tommy has taken to stealing from his mother and screwing the 16-year-old sister of his girlfriend Donna.

Donna objects to these shenanigans, but her real concern is that she may be trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behavior begun by her parents. Her father, it turns out, also was a bit of a sexual predator and a shit heel; he loused up her mother's life. Donna sees herself as slipping into the role of lousee, and she doesn't like it one bit.

However, she finds out in a visit to her dad that though the old man treated mom like yesterday's casserole, he really loved her. The reason he cheated on her and even neglected to visit her hospital deathbed was--you guessed it--the world is so messed up!

Occasionally witty moments relieve the tedium of some of the monologues, but the play would be a real endurance test if not for excellent performances by Liz Piazza Kelly as Donna and Guinn Powell as the dad. Kelly brings a dancer's physicality to her role. Powell, who must stand about six-foot-seven, commandeers the stage, and he also wields an understated wit to excellent effect. He is an actor who radiates intelligence, so that CR>his lines seem to have particular snap whether or not they are truly funny. As Tommy, Chadwick Chennault must wallow in inarticulate self-pity and old beer cans, which he does plausibly.

The Shawl and the dreamer examines his pillow run through August 26 at St. Matthew's Episcopal Cathedral. Call 522-PLAY for information.

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