Pulling punches

Mamet's The Old Neighborhood is full of rage, but never scores a direct hit

The Old Neighborhood runs through March 27. Call (214) 871-3300.

Street shots
Playwright Naomi Iizuka was drawn away from Yale Law School toward the theater by the siren song of classical literature. Contemporary if non-traditionally narrative versions of myth have made Ms. Iizuka's name at venues as diverse in scale and scope as Printer's Devil, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the Dallas Theater Center, where Skin, her adaptation of the German expressionist classic Woyzeck, played at the DTC's Big D Festival a few years back.

Other adaptations by Iizuka include Carthage, her version of the story of Dido and Aeneas, and Polaroid Stories, her more recent retelling of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" currently approaching its final weekend at the Undermain. The troupe had already done Iizuka's Tattoo Girl in collaboration with the University of Texas at Dallas, making her more widely produced than many young playwrights of such aggressively experimental leanings. A recent essay by Arthur Miller in Harpers attacked the buzz that seems to reflexively surround works that are christened experimental, saying the only thing that should matter is how well the playwright puts forth his or her view of the world.

Judging by the Undermain's diverting but inconsequential production, I'd say the verdict is still out on Iizuka's view of society. However, she does seem to hold the view that using the framework of a classic story as a kind of theatrical tree--hanging ideas old and new--automatically imbues her play with profundity. Although Polaroid Stories boasts a 2,000-year-old literary marquee name on its pedigree, Ms. Iizuka never really makes a strong connection between the malt-liquor-swilling, crack-smoking, baggy-pants-wearing homeless teens hanging around the sewer and the interplay among gods and mortals in Ovid's stories. Indeed, just as the diaphanous pants are about to fall off the butts of some of these hard-hearted young addicts, so the too-loose parallels of these stories about the creation of the world have to be pulled up by the characters and the playwright. The kids' lives are too aimless and structureless and hopeless, the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and the like too finely honed in their intent and execution, to make a match with impact.

Undermain associate and director Doug Stuart unwittingly collaborates with this feeling by pushing his actors and audience so close together, containing most of the action within a chain-link-fence box. Trapping so many wandering lives in so small a space takes the energy and wanderlust out of their stories. There are appealing moments and clever touches throughout--Orpheus (Max Hartman) boasts a guitar instead of a lyre and writes Wally Pleasant-like odes of love to Eurydice (Sitara DiGagne), while Theseus (Derik Webb) is a twangy skinhead boy who can't get over how cool the word "Motherfucker" sounds when it echoes endlessly inside the city sewer line. Narcissus (Newton Pitman) is appropriately cocky and is followed around by a reflection (Megan Pitsios) who lovingly repeats everything he says. But since most of these characters are jonesing for shelter or rock or just a little affection, their individuality is submerged under universal (not counting the crack) needs. If homeless kids are too easily ignored or dismissed, it's because their personalities are reduced to the sum total of everything they're not getting that they should. Add Iizuka's classical layer to their plight, and her characters become even blurrier. The title Polaroid Stories becomes inadvertently appropriate--the Undermain performances, spirited but unmemorable, finally do achieve the sensation of that indistinct, disposable image technology.

Polaroid Stories runs through March 20. Call (214) 747-1424.

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