So Ova It

Joe Egg comes up soft-boiled at DTC; white noise mars Caucasian Chalk Circle

Say you get some fine pâté de foie gras. You spread a big dollop of it on a thick, crusty slice of warm French baguette along with generous slivers of rare black truffle. First-class ingredients all the way around. Gourmet grub. But when you think about it, when you break it down, it's really nothing but an expensive liver and fungus sandwich.

This is the problem with the shows on the stages at Dallas Theater Center and at the young Second Thought Theatre in Addison. All the ingredients are there for something potentially good--talented actors, experienced directors, scripts with real heft. Hailed as a bold and even shocking exploration of taboo subjects when it debuted, Peter Nichols' 1967 tragicomedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which argues for euthanasia and socialism, enjoyed a successful revival three years ago in a production that transferred from London's West End to Broadway starring Eddie Izzard. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht's huge, dark 1944 drama, unfolds on a stage crowded with characters. This play within a play supports the communist ideals of the German playwright, who was living in exile in the United States when he wrote it at the end of World War II.

Socialism. Communism. Mercy killing. Heavy issues. Lots of talking. Stuff actors really love sinking their teeth into. But what's in it for the audience? A big nasty serving of hot liver sandwich, that's what.

When they sit around choosing shows for a season, these are the titles that get the most huzzahs? Really? Find me the theatergoer who wants to pay $60 a seat to sit through a mega-depressing, two-and-a-half-hour British play about the disintegrating marriage of parents of a severely handicapped child. This is Joe Egg, directed with nary a smidgen's worth of regard for the audience's patience or entertainment dollar by DTC's artistic chief, Richard Hamburger.

It's a difficult play better suited to a smaller space than the Kalita Humphreys Theater at DTC, and it's very nearly a two-hander, requiring real workouts from its leading actors. (They carry the long first act all by themselves.) Looking back at the reviews of the 2003 New York revival, it wasn't the play, which feels dated, so much as Izzard's performance as Bri, the conflicted father of Joe, a brain-damaged child, that drew the most praise. Critics found a lot to like in the comedian's ability to make the dialogue sound fresh and spontaneous. One even accused Izzard of improvising bits for laughs, until the critic looked at the script and saw that the "ad libs" were on the page all along. Joe Egg needs a kind of antic madness in its leading man. At DTC, imported actor David Manis misses on all counts, coming across as too old for the role of Bri and too sluggish, energy-wise, for clowning.

The plot of Joe Egg is high-art soap opera with flashes of vaudeville. Bri and Sheila (Wendy Rich Stetson) love each other and their disabled 10-year-old daughter Joe (the wonderful Clara Peretz) intensely. He's an underpaid Bristol, England, schoolteacher who paints whimsical scenes of the Old West as a hobby. She's a devoted stay-home mom who acts in community theater productions. In their living room, the girl sits between them in a wheelchair, blank and unresponsive as the result of birth defects. The only time she moves is when she twists into horrific seizures.

Bri is the glass-half-empty guy who knows Joe's situation is bleak and that they'll be caring for her till the end of their days. "Every cloud has a jet-black lining," he moans. Sheila, ever cheerful, prays for the miracle that will awaken "our Sleeping Beauty." They've thought of having more children, but there are fertility issues. The stress of caring for Joe has begun to erode their relationship (Bri's also the jealous type, even of Sheila's tending to houseplants and parakeets). Eventually Bri will reveal his plan to put an end to Joe's suffering, and therefore save the marriage, with an overdose of anti-seizure medication.

To ease tension and keep them amused and sane, Bri and Sheila carry on long stretches of jocular badinage, repeating routines they've made up about their sad little family. They speak directly to the audience, each getting a turn in the spotlight. These scenes should be achingly funny, with a side of heartbreak, the way Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dares to make light of its leading couple's sickening despair.

Doesn't happen in this Joe Egg. The performances are too insignificant and the setting at DTC too grand to connect play, actors and audience successfully or meaningfully. As Sheila, pretty, frizzy-haired Stetson, also hired in from out of town, is as perky as a shampoo ad. And in her tight purple sweater, pencil skirt and sharp boots, she's too put-together to convince us she's a financially strapped, harried mom who wipes drool (and worse) off her sick child every few minutes. The actress also looks young enough to play Manis' daughter, not his wife.

And then there's that house they live in. Wow. Scenic designer Michael Yeargan has built a palatial, extravagantly furnished two-story home for the play's poor schoolteacher. This wouldn't matter much except in the scene when Joe nearly dies and someone has to run down the block to use a phone because Bri and Sheila can't afford one. How'd they manage that fancy sofa and chair?

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