By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On one of the coldest nights this winter, I am led up a curving staircase that begins in the lobby of the Dallas Theater Center's Kalita Humphreys space. Near the top of the steps is the open door to Frank's Place, a rehearsal space cum mini-theater named after the designer of the Kalita Humphreys, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Three of Dallas' best actors are in the middle of rehearsal. Sally Nystuen Vahle and Ted Davey sit atop stools on the small stage inside Frank's Place. They are each reading a script that was run off on a home computer printer. Connie Nelson sits in a chair in front of the stage, her legs folded up so her chin rests on her knees. More copies of the text are spread on the concrete floor around her.
I've been granted a rare privilege for a critic, being allowed to watch actors at this most vulnerable stage of their craft. It helps that the trio are preparing not for a full-fledged production, but for a staged reading. The show is titled Ranting, Raving, and Just Plain Talking, and it's one of the more modest offerings in the Dallas Theater Center's month-long Big D Festival of the Unexpected, which features plays commissioned by nationally acclaimed playwrights, cabaret by off-Broadway veterans, and as its headliner, the anarchic, we-used-to-be-on-Fox Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash.
There will be no costumes, no props, and no elaborate lighting or set design for Ranting, Raving, and Just Plain Talking. The piece must share its time slot with some ace percussionists and a naughty 10-minute monologue by an equally talented Dallas actor, Raphael Parry, about his brief stint as a horse breeder.
What you get is two marvelous actors reading the insightful words of a third stellar performer, who has dipped her big toe into the turbulent rivers of playwriting and directing with this piece.
"There's no common theme, no thread running through this show," frets Connie Nelson, who has selected a dozen characters for Nystuen Vahle and Davey from a play-in-progress entitled Dirty Laundry.
"I think there's a pattern here," interjects Ted Davey. "It's people communicating to and through other people, and what happens when it succeeds and when it fails."
The combination of wildly individual talents is a red-bow-tied gift to Dallas audiences. These disparate virtues energize a show that's all about dramatically different people reliving significant moments in their lives. Writer and director Nelson, who will sadly be missing from the stage action, has transformed her agility as an actress--an ability to jump from character to character yet honor the psychological details of each--into a playwright's sympathy for fringe players. Sally Nystuen Vahle is the satin-voiced charmer whose ingenue face contradicts her on-stage facility with anger. Ted Davey, who vaguely resembles Nathan Lane, possesses an expressive face and voice that unite the comic and the tragic in a single monologue.
I've never read a draft of Connie Nelson's play Dirty Laundry, but the snippets she's recombined as Ranting, Raving, and Just Plain Talking suggest that Nelson understands that the best playwriting is anecdotal. It's her worry about "no common theme" that makes these monologues and dialogues work, because she doesn't attempt to shoehorn some grand, overarching lesson into the lives of her losers. The words spoken by her actors are well-observed riffs, not strongly connected to each other but true to themselves, able to convey particulars of a moment or a mindset that shock with recognition.
Nystuen Vahle, in jeans and a baggy green cotton sweatshirt which she removes and re-dons according to the room temperature, slips into a delicious Brooklyn bimbo with a ruthless undercurrent for a monologue called "My Dreams Aren't Big."
The character imagines the moment when a dashing suitor will whisk her to an expensive restaurant and propose. Before arriving at that climactic request, she has described the meal to the last hilarious detail.
"I'll feed him little bits of my lamb," she coos. "And he'll feed me little pieces of his duck. That's when the first flicker of lust will show in his eyes."
"Terrific," Connie Nelson declares from the floor. "But can we get a little more distance, a little more irony? Imagine you're a proud dyke making fun of this woman."
Ted Davey has a little more trouble navigating one of his characters--or, more accurately, has a bit more trepidation approaching him. Connie Nelson instructs him to sit on the floor while he reads his monologue, because the character is an isolated AIDS patient on the edge of dementia who's just begun to benefit from the new protease inhibitors. He's been offered the first glimmer of hope in a plague, and he's scared to death...or scared suddenly to be given a tentative reprieve after so many friends have died.
Davey shuffles his papers, clears his throat, pauses for long seconds of silence. He asks Nelson about the correct pronunciation of "ritonavir." He requests that the character stand instead of sit, so his voice will project better during the tirade. Nelson grants his wish.
"Don't be afraid of him, Ted," she urges. "Play it big. Shout your anger."
Davey shouts, all right, and when he does, his smooth voice fills the rehearsal space. But those loud moments are mere punctuations in a tentative, fearful interpretation. The character demands to know what the hell's going on with these sudden flashes of sanity and survival: