Hand Jive

Blind leading the bland in All of the Above: left to right, Mike Schraeder, Shannon Kearns-Simmons, Scott Milligan and Susan Sargeant.

Saw a strange new play about a handsome thief named Edward whose hands are amputated by court order. New ones are transplanted onto the stumps. The convicted thief is white. The recycled mitts are brown. The thief begins channeling the thoughts of the hands' former owner, a Dalai Lama-like religious figure. Freaks him out.

Then I saw a play about Helene, a beautiful deaf, blind, mute heiress who communicates with Charlotte, her caretaker-translator, in a complicated sign language only they understand. The translator might be lying about what the heiress "says" and what others are saying to her as a way of controlling the girl's life and fortune.

And there was another play about a woman who writes a New Age Bible that spawns a suicide cult. And yet another play in which God is revealed as a gender-neutral being who sees and forgives all, particularly and especially homosexuality, and declares that all religions and all books (even fiction) are true. He/She also speaks in a voice that sounds like one of the Designing Women, which, come to think of it, makes good sense.

Any one of these short works could be expanded into something pretty intriguing. Unfortunately, they're all in one confusing and overloaded play by Tom Sime titled, appropriately, All of the Above. Staged by Risk Theatre Initiative (in partnership with Sime's Modern Stage), the show is the first to go up in a new "black box" performance space on Ross Avenue near downtown. It's also the first play by Sime, a former theater critic at the Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News, to receive a full-fledged professional staging anywhere.

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As a journalist, Sime was a fine, efficient writer. Just starting out as a playwright, and freed from editorial limits, he is still too wedded to his own words. All of the Above begs for trims and rewrites. Plot lines overlap and split off in wonky directions. Action jumps months or years ahead without explanation. The first act is four scenes too long. The second feels interminable.

The dialogue shows sparks of wit—"Look, Ma, hands!" says Edward to his mother (played by a man in this version)—but too many unnecessarily crude quips come from a writer who's seen enough theater, good and bad, to know better.

So many shifts in tone create schizophrenic pacing. One scene it's a brooding political thriller, the next it's a ménage a trois via The Miracle Worker. It's a farce. It's a rumination on the degrees of rage and grace required to cope with severe disabilities. When God starts talking through a pair of magic sunglasses and drawls on for a half-hour about the meaning of life, we in the audience are ready to gnaw off our own paws to escape this trap.

Problems on the page create insurmountable obstacles for Risk director Marianne Galloway and her four-person cast. Mike Schraeder, a bulldoggy young man, doesn't appear to know whether Edward is victim or criminal, so he just acts kind of creepy. As Charlotte, Susan Sargeant looks embarrassed tumbling around with the much-younger Schraeder in the sex scene. Shannon Kearns-Simmons has the toughest job, having to play Helene without dialogue and with dark glasses obscuring half her face. She sticks on a beatific look and claps to get attention. Scott Milligan plays dual roles as Edward's mother, who hints that she works for a tyrannical, Trump-like billionaire, and as Gaston, a mincing personal assistant. He gets the only laughs worth getting.

All of the Above is starter stuff, full of the mistakes new playwrights make. Tom Sime should look back on this one as, hands down, a play he never should have put before the public. And he will go on to write better plays. He'll have to.

Take an old musical that was a flop twice on Broadway, give it a production at a playhouse whose standard of excellence is other theaters' idea of mediocrity and what do you get? Mack & Mabel, the sloppy season opener at Theatre Three.

Based on the tragic love affair between silent film director Mack Sennett and his great star, Mabel Normand, the show is built around music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, whose better scores were heard in Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles.

When the lights go up on any musical, there should be a charge of electricity in the air. Here, opening night suffered from massive power failure. J. Brent Alford plays Mack Sennett as a pompous windbag badly in need of a B-12 shot. As Mabel, Arianna Movassagh affects a dead-eyed stare under her curly mop and sings her solos with a vibrato so intense it could dislodge fillings from molars. As Sennett's other ill-fated star, comedian Fatty Arbuckle, Mark C. Guerra isn't funny. He's not even that fat.

Director Bruce Coleman has done better work at Uptown Players, among other theaters. If he's pleased with what's onstage in Mack & Mabel, he's lost a step. The whole thing just looks dumpy. The set by Theatre Three's founder and pursestring-gripper Jac Alder doesn't register so much as "movie studio" as it does "swap meet." Alder as designer or director loves to drag ugly old pieces of furniture onto the stage for no reason. He does the same with actors.

No detail has been un-ignored in this production. The choreography of the pie fight is the slowest and dullest in pie-fighting history. Costumes by Michael Robinson, a graduate of the hot glue school of design, are a horror. (Coleman designed Mabel's dresses for Movassagh, so she's the one who doesn't resemble a windblown scarecrow.) The men in the cast haven't even bothered with period haircuts.

This is the rewritten Mack & Mabel, a sunnier version revised by Francine Pascal, sister of now-deceased original book writer Michael Stewart. So instead of killing off drug-addicted Mabel at the end, everything comes out all hunky-dory. Storywise, that is. Theatre Three's production is dead on arrival.

Sweet Charity is the best of this year's Dallas Summer Musicals. The now-vintage cutie-pie show—book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields—tells of the sorry but sadly funny love life of a Manhattan taxi dancer named Charity Hope Valentine. The girl has a gooey outlook on romance but keeps winding up with the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

In the road company now at the Music Hall at Fair Park, Paige Davis, long of leg and twinkly of eye, plays Charity as less a loser and more a sexy, cockeyed optimist than Shirley MacLaine did in the 1969 movie. What a crackerjack comic actress this former Trading Spaces host turns out to be. And her dancing is damn good.

Walter Bobbie directed the Broadway revival, which suffered a revolving array of so-so stars, including Christina Applegate and Molly Ringwald, before evolving into a strong road show. Besides Davis, who actually makes us care about Charity, we also get a fabu supporting cast. As the claustro- and commitment-phobic boyfriend Oscar, Chicago actor Guy Adkins turns the meet-cute scene with Charity—they're stuck in a stalled elevator at the 92nd Street Y—into a sequence of madcap gymnastic contortions. Steve Wilson is a darling Vittorio Vidal, Italian movie star and all-around roué. David Glaspie rocks "The Rhythm of Life" as jazzy evangelist Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck. Wayne Cilento's choreography evokes the sexy hip pops of Bob Fosse's original steps without being rude about it.

Hey, big spender, get good seats for this one.

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