Matrimony unplugged

Stellar acting and a strident script give new life to old material in Once in Doubt

Marriage is a most propitious arrangement for theatrical adventure, as playwrights have known for centuries. When you throw two people into a situation that's both legally circumscribed and saddled with the baggage of both community and individual, you're watching an arena contest transpire. The best playwrights don't so much pit man and woman against each other, even if they are apparent adversaries in marriage-driven moments--they pit husband and wife against their own emotions and their strong attraction and repulsion toward the whole idea of marriage as refuge that so often provides inadequate cover. The cracks in the shelter's roof are what audiences are invited to peer into, so we can watch people scurrying, Lady or the Tiger?-like, to try to guess which doors are escape routes and which will bring some ferocious attack of love or hate.

You can half-believe that Theatre Too, Theatre Three's underground black-box space, is a bunker from the falling bombs of failed expectation and miscommunicated feeling in Raymond J. Barry's Once in Doubt, a Southwest premiere from New Theatre Company. The low ceiling and close proximity between actor and audience make everyone huddle together under the explosions. Barry is an extensively stage-trained character actor who seems to have taken the occasional supporting role in movies to finance his more exploratory theatrical endeavors. These include theater workshops in New York penitentiaries that evolved into a full-fledged dramatic ensemble of ex-cons, and an association with two of theatrical convention's most unrepentant offenders, playwrights Joseph Chaikin and Richard Foreman.

Once in Doubt has a conventional narrative with washes of experimentalism that collect around the edges of the angry action. Unlike, say, the most free-form of Chaikin's and Foreman's work, this bruising study of a marriage between two very self-absorbed people lets you recognize characters, contexts, and motives, and maybe even sympathize once you fall into the comedy's strident groove--which, of course, you either will or won't. The strange part is the emotional nakedness of this husband and wife, their sheer infantile honesty; the experimentalism is the playwright's scraping away of all the polite conversation and rational self-deceptions. He shows us bloody bone and marrow being exercised in the pursuit of happiness. These people never say anything less than what they feel from the moment the house lights go down, but since we can tell immediately that there's little chance of connection, we understand this will be no politely naturalistic portrait of a disintegrating marriage. Under the direction of talented Dallas actor T.A. Taylor, New Theatre Company's show is as crisp and startling as a whip-crack.

As in the best theater that offers you something surprising and at first a little perplexing, the key here is the same as with Beckett--don't dig too deep for meaning. As you watch the exchanges between Harry (Jim Jorgensen), an abstract expressionist painter obsessed with his art, and Flo (Charlotte Akin), an artist's wife fed up with her husband's obsession, you will come to see that they veer recklessly between rageful complaints and woozy romanticism. This is, once again, just the dichotomous experience of many relationships boiled down to its primitive components, its magnetized polarities, and its glistening theatrical guts, presented for you, dear ticket- buyer. There's nothing else for you to fuss over.

Director T.A. Taylor has placed his audience inside Harry and Flo's New York loft. We are separated from these gurgling, cooing, brawling grown-up babies by one stretched-thin canvas--Harry works on a giant painting, a collage, that is the fourth wall, the invisible screen that separates actor and audience. He is a belligerent pain-in-the-ass, to say the least--a man who paints while hopping, crouching, and swaying in as physical an exorcism as you imagine Jackson Pollock undergoing. He is painting to contain what he later admits is a "scream inside my head." Flo is clearly sick of not being noticed enough, which makes you think she's alternately narcissistic and just plain self-destructive; still, she shows more flashes of concession, of negotiation, and of desperate desire to keep the relationship in one piece.

Their furious, profane pas de deux has an unresponsive trois in Harry's invisible painting, treated almost like an only child. But ultimately, it proves an insufficient point of shared conflict. They want to paint the stormy story of their short marriage on a canvas of human flesh, and Mr. Wagner (Carl Savering), the poor sap who lives nearby in the same building, is a big, dumb easel: He hears the commotion, comes inside to check and see if everything's OK, and gets served copious vodka drinks. The rest is marital infamy, as Harry and Flo attempt to hurt each other using the blue-collar Mr. Wagner as their weapon of choice.

All three actors in New Theatre Company's Once in Doubt do outstanding work, but Jim Jorgensen as the painter who cuts his own wrists to supply just the right color deserves special mention. This is the most focused, clarified work I've ever seen Jorgensen deliver. He has always been an able actor, but has sometimes swallowed the more emotional moments in the subtler roles he's played. He'll be OKtill things reach a fever pitch, then he starts to sort of mutter and mumble. This whole production is pitched at a feverish pace, and Jorgensen skillfully delineates between the big moments and the less big--a hairsplitting distinction, you may think, until you see another actor straddle the demands of this raucous material and his own instincts toward self-indulgence. Jorgensen doesn't succumb. Akin is predictably fluent in the language of heartbreak and confrontation; it's a dubious honor to declare anyone an anchor, but her tart professionalism ensures every production will have one sure thing. Luckily, here, she's not the only sure thing. Carl Savering proves he can pull another variation on the working-class lug from what is apparently a full hand. He is as beautifully, achingly out of place in this artist's loft as the man and wife who inhabit it are doomed to stew here.

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