Napoleon complex

Although different scenes may hop from century to century, a stage play really must concern itself with the moment. In the theater, real time isn't a trick the director and producer pull from a toy box full of gimmicks, as in filmmaking. The playwright, the actors, and the director are shackled to time in a way artists in no other popular medium are. The most brilliant line-reading or the canniest musical cue or the most devastating plot twist evaporates as quickly as it appears.

Couple this profound truth with a more recent development--the Lilliputian-size attention span of our collective satellite-dependent Western Mind--and it's no wonder theater has been snubbed like Laura Wingfield by the TV, Video, and Information Generations. Basically, people don't want to have conversations anymore that don't involve keyboards or car phones, so how can we expect the majority of Americans to sit for three-hours-with-intermission and listen to strangers chatter on about fictitious problems?

Remember the one-act! calls some attentive rogue from the gallery. Actually, it's remarkable that the one-act hasn't been revived for fidgety audience members beyond those who attend drama workshops and community outreach projects. In fact, it's a form only slightly more sophisticated than the half-hour sitcom, with the additional burden of exposition for characters who an audience has never seen and will never see again. (To be sure, the sitcom is a discipline in which Americans of all income and education levels hold honorary degree.)

Yet the one-act, by its very definition, departs from the model of Western storytelling, put forth in Aristotle's Poetics. Ari said there are three parts to every complete narrative: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Playwrights took the man's recipe and concocted the three-act play, which is still the most popular model in commercial American theater. One-acts are the bucking broncos of the stage--rowdy, bullheaded contraptions that require the utmost in balance, stamina, and speed on the part of playwrights and actors just to stay on top of things. Think about it:Every word, every action, every situation must carry a hundred times more juice than a two- or three-act, yet none can overshadow the other along that happy trail to denouement.

To achieve a soundly structured one-act, playwrights really have to put characterization on the back burner and instead locate the perfect situation. Actors in a short play don't have multiple asides and extended monologues with which to ingratiate themselves with an audience. They must rely on the aforementioned perfect situation to draw out the various sides of their characters, and pronto.

The three young North Texas playwrights featured in Thin Dime Theater's show, 3 Violent Plays, have, in each case, uncovered the perfect situation. Unfortunately, these three short plays about desperate people and the philosophies they adopt in desperate situations suffer from a Napoleon complex: They appear so conscious of their own brevity, they think they have to shout to be heard. The little people inside these one-acts scurry like roaches before our eyes, which is sometimes appropriate but mostly makes us feel like we're watching performers inside a fishbowl, each one scrambling up the glass sides. Audiences are left to digest a tangle of sometimes intriguing thoughts and images you can imagine must have looked like complete plays to each of these writers and directors.

The first play, Joey, was adapted and directed by Les Branson from a biography of the infamous New York City gangster, Joey Gallo. An unnamed biographer (Anthony Sera) meets with the imprisoned Gallo (David Lozano) under the watchful eyes of a prison guard and engages him in intellectual hand-to-hand combat. The rapist-racketeer converted his own criminal pathology into a kind of manifesto for survival in a capitalist society. Unfortunately, although author and director Branson manages to locate some shiny gems of information and insight on his subject, Joey isn't really a one-act play. The two-character exchanges make it feel more like the staged reading of a court transcript, which may be what Branson was pursuing. But as theater, Joey is too static, too inert when you consider the explosive ingredients that have gone into it.

The final play, Dead Wait, written and directed by Taylor Hayden, who also stars, suffers from the exact opposite problem. This tale of two escaped gunmen--hair-trigger Vic (Hayden) and dopey Boomer (Daniel Fitzgerald), who hold a man hostage inside the man's farmhouse--begins at high pitch and never relaxes. The play contains multiple viewpoints and enough momentum to qualify it as a one-act; the big problem here is with the performances. Hayden is good, but it's sometimes difficult to understand the dialogue mumbled by Fitzgerald.

Easily the best of the three is Natalie Gaupp's Liquidation, a nasty little morality play so sophisticated, it's hard to separate the morals being attacked from those being affirmed. Set in some monolithic corporation, probably in the near future, the play follows Nathan (Chad Bridges), a rather shy junior-executive type who wants to transfer from his current employer. Advising him is prosaic, acerbic Beatrice (Valerie Galloway), who demonstrates the latest innovation in management's dogged pursuit of efficiency. This one requires that the office workers pack heat.

In the space of about 30 minutes, Liquidation establishes the characters, sets its theme afloat, and executes a near-perfect bell curve on the narrative scale. The audience rides this arc to its logical conclusion, thanks to a terrific performance by Galloway, and is treated to a bit of post-play speculation: Is the author lampooning the shark pool of corporate America, or the "sensitivity training" and other Orwellian devices foisted on hapless workers? You be the judge.

3 Violent Acts behaves like a crowd of talented kindergartners who still don't know the rules. They have a lot of important stuff to say, but can't settle down enough to convey the messages coherently. This is an intriguing grab bag of theatrical flotsam; the tastiest elements are those tidbits of scandalous behavior that keep us hungry for the next dramatic fix. Thin Dime Theater still hasn't developed the discipline to handle such material artfully, but clearly knows which subjects cause sparks when you draw them close to the theatrical flame.

3 Violent Plays runs through August 18. Call 357-5450.


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