One night stand-off

Lean Theater offers a slight production of a thinly scripted play

There have been numerous American plays that have grappled with what might be called "the morning after" dilemma--as in, "OK, what do I do the morning after I've spent the night with someone I just met?" Think David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago or Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune. These plays took an essentially comic approach to sharing bed and halitosis with a stranger, but they were springboards into that favorite dramatic conceit--the salvation of ruined lives through post-coital emotional confession and, only occasionally, through love itself. That's an important distinction--contemporary playwrights obsessed with naturalism spare us the Same Time, Next Year formula of carrying us through decades of passion. It's enough that the couple in question just get to unburden their sadness and despair without us worrying whether they'll actually grow old together. This might be the most impactful use of theater's real-time format.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, early in his theatrical career, mixed profane dysfunction and high-minded sentimental yearning with results that were sometimes insightful (Psychopathia Sexualis) and sometimes trite (Italian American Reconciliation). While no one enjoys a well-timed sex romp more than I, we don't really need a bunch of pottymouths tracing Valentine hearts in the verbal sewage of their own past bitterness. Constant profanity is a playwright's cheap device to create psychological walls between characters that we know will be dismantled brick by brick: He may talk like a trucker, but you can bet he'll swoon like the heroine of a late 19th-century romance when you lift that two-ton chip off his shoulder and get him into the sack.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, given a modest but effectively atmospheric staging by the Lean Theater in Theatre Too, certainly features its share of "fucks" exchanged by an extremely bitter young single mother (Nance Watkins) and a rage-filled pugilist (Marc Hebert) who works "on the truck." Given that, for me, Shanley's plays often take the most circuitous routes of dialogue to arrive at the simplest or most obvious places, constricting the hot air of his usual gasbag characters down to the same few cuss words was refreshing. It's nice that these two explosive, wounded twentysomethings--who meet in a bar, then go to her bedroom after she antagonizes him to the point of almost strangling her--don't pirouette into Shanleyian musings after they reveal their scars and fall clumsily into love.

The problem with Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is that the whole play can be summed in the previous sentence. This multi-scene one-act feels much more like an acting class exercise, or an extended audition, or a workshop production, than a succinct exploration into the lives of its characters. The "redemption through love" theme doesn't feel cliched here so much as muffled and incompletely expressed. Theatre Three veteran and Lean co-founder Sharon Bunn does a good job of marshaling chemistry between her two attractive young stars--a lesser director would've allowed them to trample right over the humorous moments in this claustrophobic duet. But it's difficult to forget that she, Watkins, and Hebert are trying to throw off sparks by rubbing two pieces of cardboard together.

Besides the script, there is a problem with casting. Watkins and Hebert received strong critical notices playing brother and sister in Lean Theater's recent production of Orphans, a show I didn't see. Hebert also played a hothead in that one, and his swarthy looks go a long way toward convincing you he could pop off and start pounding you at any moment. But he also wears expressions of narcissistic ignorance well; graft onto this a touching problem with anxiety attacks "every time I think about my heart," and you get a nicely rounded lunkhead. Watkins seems less comfortable alongside him in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. She handles the play's emotional climax well, but comes across in the crucial bar scene--the place where we meet her--as spoiled and snotty rather than weary and self-destructive. Her aggression comes from nowhere substantial, or at least, nowhere we can locate; she might just as well be a sorority sister taunting her football player ex-boyfriend as a haunted woman who risks physical harm to make a connection.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea runs through June 6. Call 871-3300.

Banter
It's practically a cliche of the post-Strasberg American theater that some actors do a lot of research for their roles, especially when they are playing real-life historical figures. During our 45-minute telephone interview, Dallas actress Susan Sergeant, who founded Wingspan Theatre Company last year, donned this stereotypical straitjacket with dizzying, detailed knowledge of the character she is currently portraying in the Southwest premiere of Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed. She regales me with a scholar's knowledge of Alice James, sister of late 19th-century giant of American letters Henry James and social psychologist William James. Like too many intellectual women of her era--think Charlotte Perkins Gilman's terrifyingly claustrophobic short story "The Yellow Wallpaper"--she was encouraged to go to bed and stay there. Sergeant refers to James and women of her ilk as "career invalids."

"Alice didn't receive formal higher education, and she didn't get married," Sergeant says. "She fell between the cracks of options and never escaped. She was truly brilliant, fiercely intellectual, but also a woman and someone who was socially inept at the mating ritual. As far as anyone knows, she died a virgin. As a result, she was never fulfilled physically or emotionally. She used her mind as a defense."

Alice in Bed is the second production from Wingspan Theatre, and a greatly expanded endeavor from the company's critically acclaimed first show, William Luce's The Last Flapper. That one-woman show, performed at the Bath House Cultural Center, featured Sergeant and also explored the life of a famous woman who buzzed around the periphery of American letters, Zelda Fitzgerald. ("One of the advantages of forming your own theater company," Sergeant says with a laugh, "is picking the best roles for yourself.") Sergeant had actually intended to do Alice in Bed before The Last Flapper.

"I've been wanting to do Alice in Bed since 1993, but I just got the rights a year ago," she says. "My husband was in a horrible motorcycle accident, but he got a lovely settlement. That's how I was able to get the rights from Sontag and produce this script with more actors, designers, and costumes. Before that, I just didn't have the resources to stage this show, so my husband suggested The Last Flapper for the first time around."

Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan, Alice in Bed co-stars Rene Moreno as Henry James and takes full advantage of Susan Sontag's imaginative, free-form script, which draws explicit parallels between the unsung James sibling and another Alice who lived in her imagination, Lewis Carroll's habitue of Wonderland and The Looking Glass. Sontag is able to push Alice James through various hallucinatory Carollian moments, including a tea party with real-life female literary pioneers Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson, because the real-life James became a frequent user of laudanum, pure opium, and morphine during the last few years of her pain-wracked life when she began to waste away from a very real illness--breast cancer.

Sontag's script--her first play--was first staged eight years ago, and as a German translation. Her legendary essays have made her a pop critic/philosopher to rival the likes of no-longer-living opinionmakers like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell, but does Sontag have the basic narrative skills to forge a successful drama?

"Sontag comes from the literary world, not the theatrical world," Sergeant admits. "You could get lost in the play's language, because it's so beautiful. But the wrong director could really mess it up. I think Pam [Myers-Morgan] has been careful to make a few changes so it's accessible theatrically."

Susan Sergeant admits she has mixed feelings about the fact that Sontag, who was originally scheduled to come to Dallas as part of a "five-page, Broadway-style contract," won't be able to attend the Texas debut because she's working on her second play in Italy this summer.

"On the one hand, I'm disappointed," she says. "On the other, I'm relieved. This is very impressionistic material, and we'll feel freer to shape it according to our own vision."

On comparing herself to the woman she has become for a month: "If Alice James and I were to take an I.Q. test at the same time, she'd smoke me," Sergeant says. "But I'm more worldly in an emotional sense because I have husband and family, a domestic as well as a professional life. In some ways, her life was so small. The greatest challenge of this role is to leave that emotional knowledge behind, to forget it, yet try to find parallels between my own experience and Alice's."

Alice in Bed runs through June 20. Call (972) 504-6218.

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