Talk to Me
Farewell, fourth wall. Actors are talking directly to their audiences in three shows, each of which tries to dissolve the invisible barrier between performer and spectator in a different way. Sometimes it works. Sometimes the in-your-face approach just gets annoying.
Such is the case with Lanford Wilson's Book of Days, now onstage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. At the beginning of this two-act drama, characters stand stiffly and address the audience as soon as the lights come up. You're in "Dublin, Mizzurrah," they tell you, an "educated community" with four bars, five churches, two malls and a Pizza Hut. It's a "clean, quiet, prosperous town," they say, smiling with the vacant benignity of a church choir.
But unlike the wholesome denizens of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the old chestnut that clearly was Wilson's inspiration for his take on life in America's heartland, the residents of Dublin, Missouri, harbor mo' than a few terrible secrets. They're not so clean and quiet as they'd have you believe, and the ones who are prosperous are the dirtiest of them all.
Two events devastate Dublin during the play. A community production of Shaw's Saint Joan brings a controversial outsider in as its director and turns a local woman into a martyr. And a tornado, which sweeps through town one night, leaves the wealthiest citizen dead in the woods. The upheavals caused by the storm and the play (deemed "anti-church" by the town's leading pastor) serve to tear apart a marriage and leave a family business in shambles. One character commits suicide. Another becomes a murder suspect. The much-revered pastor is revealed to be a conniving, woman-hating villain consumed by greed.
If the saga of Days sounds more like Days of Our Lives, you're on the right track. With its detours into adultery, murder and blackmail, this play tries to work too many twists and turns into its unwieldy road map of a plot.
All the while, Wilson keeps it down-home, with his dozen characters stopping now and then to look out at the audience for a howdy-do. The only time the interruption is welcome is when one finally says, "Time for intermission, folks." After a 90-minute first act, it's a yee-ha moment for the seat-fillers. (The second act is just as long, be warned.)
The Addison Theatre Centre cast does its best to make Book of Days interesting. The performances--particularly Robert Prentiss as the imported play director and Steven Pounders as the steely eyed reverend--convey confidence and an understanding of where the important moments are. The direction by Terry Martin and James Paul Lemons is inventive and uncluttered. But they're all burdened by Wilson's turgid script, heavy on exposition and overflowing with superfluous descriptions of everything from the color of the autumn leaves to the process of making a really good cheddar (one of the characters is an expert cheesemaker).
It takes more than an hour for the key storyline (about the dead guy in the woods) to rev into anything good. Before that it's a lot of characters waltzing (and occasionally tripping) around Michael Sullivan's multileveled runway set, describing li'l ol' Dublin like they're reading from a Frommer's guide to the Midwest. And lest the title of the play become meaningless, they call off calendar dates constantly: "June 18, a day of discovery," and "June 28, a day of redemption." Like that.
Wilson, writer of such great plays as Burn This and Talley's Folly, falters in his attempt to dramatize the dark side of small towns (he grew up in Lebanon, Missouri). Aiming for Our Town, he's veered off into Peyton Place.
In a refreshed and expanded new version of Rick Najera's hilarious Latinologues, now at the tiny Wilson Carriage House before moving later this month to the larger Undermain space, actors talk right to the audience and react immediately to the laughter and applause. This series of comic monologues explores the American Latino experience with razor-sharp satire and bursts of rat-a-tat energy that get the crowd worked into a happy frenzy.
Otis Gray and Marco Rodriguez, both products of Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts, play all the roles under the direction of writer Najera, who came in from L.A. (where he's a busy TV writer) to oversee this production. Najera has trimmed and tightened some of the segments (first performed a decade ago) and added a new sequence that references September 11. The improvements give the production a boost, and Gray and Rodriguez are spectacularly funny in each and every scene.
Gray takes the spotlight first as "Mexican Moses," trying to lead Latinos to the promised land. Wherever that is. "We will wander in Oak Cliff and we won't even need a Mapsco," he declares (lots of local references pop up). Then he hands down commandments to what he calls the "children of the sun." "Pay for cable installation," he intones, "and thou shalt not use the name of Edward James Olmos in vain."
But the exodus is thwarted because the Cubans disappear off to the right and Puerto Ricans to the left. The "Lost Tribe" of Brazilians loses its clothes, and the Argentinians won't participate because they consider themselves European. As commentary on the differences in Latino cultures, it's smart and trenchant, as well-written as anything John Leguizamo has come up with in his much-praised in-one stage shows.
Rodriguez, a dimpled cutie, shows terrific versatility, portraying "Paquito," an over-the-hill ex-Menudo member now bar-backing at the Latin Grammys; "Carlos," a janitor from the Dominican Republic who worked in the World Trade Center; "Ernestina," an anguished mother from El Salvador ("the death squads...so professional!"); and "Maria," a bewigged talk show host who blasts Puerto Ricans for their dietary habits ("I watched them fry a salad!").
After it's over, it's hard to believe there were only two actors onstage. They fill the room with voices and characters, playing with and off the audience in an ongoing and always enjoyable game of verbal jai alai.
There's no reason Defending the Caveman, back at the Majestic for another two-week run, couldn't keep its writer, director and star, Rob Becker, employed for the rest of his life. Performed by the affable Becker since the early '90s, Caveman is a funny, provocative look at gender roles and the Mars-Venus differences in how men and women communicate.
With his relaxed-fit jeans, faded blue T-shirt and hairy forearms, Becker is the enlightened, unthreatening alpha male, questioning language, culture and history as perceived by men and women. Between men, he explains, "'Dickhead' means you're my friend. 'Buttwipe' means I missed you."
Women are multitaskers. Men focus in a linear mode. "That's why the guy has to turn down the radio when he gets lost," Becker says.
Women crave closeness. Men want space. Baseball is the perfect activity, muses Becker. "Buncha guys, hangin' out, far from each other."
And so it goes as Becker unreels his ideas over two fleeting hours. It's stand-up comedy, philosophy and anthropology, and it's very, very funny. Rolling thunder funny. Punch-your-significant-other-in-the-ribs funny. See, honey? That's what I've been trying to tell you.
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