Broken Gears' The Hand Tempts the Fickle Finger of Fate
A play using only a pair of actors is often called a two-hander. The Hand, the boffo season finale at Broken Gears Project Theatre, fits the description, though between the two men onstage are just three human hands. The fourth is missing in a tale that packs a powerful, dramatic punch.
The actors are Joey Folsom and Jeff Swearingen, two of Dallas theater's most watchable young leading men. As the lights come up on the set, a black and white-tiled bathroom built into a corner of the intimate Broken Gears black box space, Folsom is stepping naked into a shower. Swearingen, in a bathrobe, is lathering up for a shave at the sink. Are their characters roommates? Lovers? Are they even real?
Playwright Germán Madrid lets us wonder for a bit as the mystery of two men, three hands and one bathroom encounter unfolds in a remarkably brisk 55 minutes. Translated from Spanish to English by Dallas actress and writer Loren Roark, La Mano keeps the dialogue terse and intentionally vague as "The Man" (Folsom on the night reviewed) expresses only a hint of surprise at coming out of the shower to find the "Other Man" has invaded his lav.
"Until today a stranger has never spontaneously appeared in my bathroom," says The Man, drying himself with a fluffy towel and slipping into sleek black boxer-briefs. He's so unconcerned about the presence of the Other Man that the conversation could be mistaken for flirting.
"I've come to ask you for your hand," says the Other Man, played by Swearingen. He's not talking marriage. He needs a debt paid, one he figures The Man, who is wealthy, owes him for the body part in question.
Issues of ownership and privilege are explored in The Hand. And when words don't convince the rich man to offer a helping hand, as it were, to his needy visitor, there's a sudden burst of violence. Think Psycho, except the victim only loses part of a limb, not his life. When the handed-off hand itself starts to act independently, both men are in danger.
As cryptic at times as Waiting for Godot, as gory as a midnight movie, The Hand can be enjoyed as dark Grand Guignol comedy or as a serious, violent allegory. The dynamic acting by Folsom and Swearingen glosses over hiccups in a translation that sometimes sounds too literal and un-idiomatic, but some of the poetry does survive. Director Andy Baldwin paces the play brilliantly, with a slow build to that bloodletting and then a sharp turn into physical comedy, something Swearingen excels at.
The actors alternate in the roles of Man and Other Man, an interesting exercise that fits with Broken Gears' philosophy of keeping artists and audience a little on edge. Folsom and Swearingen are so good, it'd be worth seeing this show twice to compare performances.
Yes, two thumbs up for The Hand.
Another two-hander is also a two-hanky-er out at WaterTower Theatre in Addison. Shooting Star by Steven Dietz, directed by Mark Fleischer, works on the old "stuckinna" gimmick. Reed (played by James Crawford) and Elena (Diana Sheehan) are marooned in a snowed-in airport for 14 hours (the airline terminal scenery by Michael Sullivan even has a "window" overlooking the snowy tarmac). The characters were a couple in college and briefly after graduation, but they haven't seen or spoken to each other in 25 years. He's a stuffy sales exec chasing deals at the expense of family time. She's single, a yoga-loving granola cruncher who's quick with a quip. In the deserted airport lounge, they wait out the blizzard, reminiscing about the Court and Spark years of the 1970s and letting their old feelings warm up again.
Scriptwise, the 90-minute play is formulaic commercial schlockaroni. But darned if Crawford and Sheehan, two more terrific Dallas actors who rarely get to play romantic leads, don't bring it off and then some. They're the right ages for the roles and they bring to Reed and Elena a lovely, authentic familiarity. You can feel the spark of that old connection between these characters, like we all had, or wanted to have, with someone from our salad days.
When the snow stops falling and they have to say goodbye and fly away from each other, it's sweet and sad. Sniff, sniff. It got me.
The best part of Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party is the title. A hit at the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival, the play by Aaron Loeb is getting its local premiere with the amateur company Level Ground Arts, which uses the stage at the Kim Dawson Theatre.
Little of this production captures the antic, satiric tone of what should be a faster-moving farce. The show is divided into three long acts, each telling the same story—about a small-town Illinois teacher on trial for teaching 9-year-olds that Honest Abe's love for friend Joshua Speed had lavender overtones—from a different character's perspective. A member of the audience is tasked with deciding whose POV goes first and second. Between scenes, the cast dances around the stage in awkward ants-in-their-pants choreography. Cue eye-roll sequence in 3-2-1.
Director Warner Jacobi has a couple of good actors in his cast. Allen Mathews exhibits a well-honed Ned Beatty bluster as a red-state politician/prosecutor trying to make political hay out of homophobia. Dick Monday, playing numerous roles, including the 16th president, is head-to-toe funny every minute he's visible. Some other members of the large ensemble, who will go nameless here, should investigate taking some acting classes.
The amateur status of Level Ground Arts is evident in the cardboard scenery, splotchy lighting and poor direction. Actors line up single file across the stage (always the sign of the non-pro theater troupe), and they frequently turn their backs and talk to the back wall.
Testing patience even further, the broad comedy too often lapses into heavy polemic speechifying. Valid points are made about intolerance and the rights of gays and ethnic minorities, but playwright Loeb is no Larry Kramer. He's not even Cosmo Kramer.
Running just under three hours, Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party could cut half its dialogue and most of its dancing and be twice as funny. Four score and seven minutes' worth sounds just about right.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.