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Unhinged

Who's there? Julie Painter, Mary-Margaret Pyeatt and Heidi Wermuth cross paths across time in Theatre Britain's production of Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors.
Mark Trew

You could call The Illusion a comedy. You could call ipecac an after-dinner liqueur. That doesn't make those descriptions accurate.

The Illusion is Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger's bitter dose of theatrical medicine after the tasty fun of Hank Williams: Lost Highway, a jukebox musical audiences loved so much it was held over. Now it's as if Hamburger feels the need to punish DTC subscribers a little--no, a LOT--for enjoying Hank. He does this by force-feeding them a show he must consider high art.

Winding up the current DTC season, The Illusion adds insult to grievous injuries previously inflicted by Joe Egg, a throbbing headache of a play about a couple and their severely disabled child, and I Am My Own Wife, starring a gangly tranny in an ugly dress talking for three hours about Nazis and furniture.

Based on a 17th-century work by French playwright Pierre Corneille (previously unknown to me and, I suspect, most every 21st-century theatergoer looking for a good time), The Illusion has been "freely adapted" by Angels in America dramatist Tony Kushner. If you've seen his Angels plays, parts one and two, which take about a month each to watch, you already know Kushner's predilection for big words. He doesn't so much write dialogue as propagate prose punctuated by preposterously puffed-up hard-to-pronounceables, often beginning with the letter P. Popping up in this play: poltroon, prolixity, punctilious. Pretentious? Plenty.

Plotwise, The Illusion is pretty appalling too. A rich old lawyer (Keith Jochim) pays a magician (James McDonnell) a wad of cash to conjure images of his wayward son (Al Espinosa). The magician leads the man to believe the son is dead by showing him three lengthy scenarios, each revealing the son to be the center of a tragic love triangle involving the same woman (Kathryn Meisle) and her servant (Brienin Bryant). In overlong playlets, characters assume different names and wear costumes from unrelated historical periods (though for some reason always the same ugly brown lace-up boots). When it turns out that the son is alive and working as an actor--illusion, smillusion--the lawyer-father is more disappointed than if the kid were dead. Nice way to regard the profession of those speaking your prolix speeches, Kushner.

Along with the principals, two other characters drop in to bluster. As the cuckolded fiancé of the leading lady, Jakie Cabe wears tennis clothes and then a riding habit as the pansified Pleribo/ Adraste/Prince Florilame. As Metamore, a buffoon who blathers on and on and on about the moon, Brad Bellamy, dressed as Magellan and doing John Lithgow's character from 3rd Rock, drapes himself over pieces of the set with what appears to be a large woolly penis poking out of his trousers. Occasionally, he squeezes the animal or aims it at the front row. It's kind of awful, and the sight of it literally cock-blocks all ensuing dialogue.

And jeepers creepers, the crap they say. "The wind blew me here on great brown wings!" says Calisto/Calindor/Theogenes (Espinosa). "My happy heart crawls up into my mouth, amphibiously glad to be there." (Talk about a frog in your throat.)

Crawling up into my mouth throughout The Illusion was the slightest taste of bile. This is one of those plays that a director, in this case Mr. Hamburger, puts on to massage his own ego and to show off to the theatrical community. Not to the Dallas theatrical community, about which he could not care less, but to his artsy de la fartsy betters in New York, the Yale School of Drama and other points east. With a play like this, Hamburger can fly on great brown wings to an artistic plateau high above a foot-stomping mass-market hit like Hank Williams. Who cares if the audience hates it? That's not the point. It's Tony Kushner! Freely adapting! With big words!

In France they call it merde. Here, it's a great steaming meadow muffin.

Almost every aspect of The Illusion displays unabashed contempt both for the audience and for the poor actors on the Kalita Humphreys stage. On top of Kushner's exercises in thesaurus-thumbing, the prescribed acting style is pompous and off-putting. Very bad Old Vic, all showy gestures and pose-y postures. The staging overall has an antiseptic chill about it, not helped by scenic designer Michael Yeargan's black-ice floor and silver-mirrored walls, and DTC's notoriously frigid air conditioning out front, which requires ushers to distribute thick red blankets to the susceptible elderly or to any summer-dressed patrons before curtain time.

The actors, poor creatures, are made to remain on that ice-cold stage almost every one of the production's 175 minutes (the lawyer and magician sitting opposite each other stage right and left, as stiff as bookends). Espinosa, such a hot property as the lead in DTC's Anna in the Tropics a few seasons ago, creates subzero chemistry with co-star Meisle, who lisps like old-timey screen bad girl Gloria Grahame and looks old enough in Stephen Strawbridge's white-harsh lighting to be Espinosa's mom. Bryant throws some odd head-bobbing hey-sistah rhythms into her role as the nosey servant girl but seems stymied when she stumbles into Kushner's sudden streams of rhymed couplets. Oh, yes. Rhymed couplets. Could it get any worse?

It does, but I'll spare the details. A final word, however, about Hamburger's use of actors. Most of the Equity cast of The Illusion are fly-ins from distant shores. This theater regularly hires local actors for leading roles--"regularly" meaning every other leap year and when the run of a play coincides with the passing of Halley's Comet. Locals generally are relegated to walk-ons and spear carriers at DTC, as is the case with Chamblee Ferguson, an Equity actor regarded as one of the finest leading men in Dallas and Fort Worth. He's played starring roles at Uptown Players, Echo, Classical Acting, Lyric Stage, Shakespeare Festival of Dallas and Kitchen Dog, earning many awards and great notices here and for his work across the river at Circle Theatre and Casa Manana. Ferguson certainly could have made some magic with any male role in The Illusion, but there he is, earning his Equity paycheck as "The Amanuensis" (fancy word for secretary), a mute who must stand stockstill, occasionally clicking his tongue to denote the passage of time. What a waste of talent.


Communicating Doors is slammin' compared to a big-budget dud like The Illusion. Alan Ayckbourn's 1994 time-traveling parlor mystery makes for a thought-provoking and surprisingly touching live theater experience at Theatre Britain, a small company stretched for production dollars but rich with energy and ideas.

Leading from one London hotel suite to another, the space between adjoining doors becomes a time machine for by-the-hour dominatrix Poopay Dayseer (Heidi Wermuth). Hired by a wheezing coot named Reece Welles (David H.M. Lambert), Poopay is promised double pay if she'll witness the old man's signature on a handwritten confession. Decades before, he was complicit in the murders of two wives (both killed for money), deeds handled by his loyal and rather psychotic business partner, Julian (Kevin Scott Keating). When a terrified Poopay tries to escape the suite, she's thrown back in time, first 10 years, then 20, to convince the wives (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Julie Painter) they're about to be offed.

Ayckbourn meticulously has worked out the baffling logic of his time-jumping caper (Poopay can change history, but only so much) and manages to lead his characters and the audience into his villain's trap without too many trip-ups. He also drops some intriguing predictions for London circa 2014--no Big Ben, Tony Blair in prison--that make the plot twists at the end even more satisfying.

Directed by Robin Armstrong, Communicating Doors suffers from some balky timing in the first act and could use a smidge more madcap dottiness in its main characters. As Poopay, newcomer Wermuth has a delightful Cockney accent and legs so straight and skinny she could wear soda straws as hip-waders. As the bad guy, Keating starts out as threatening as a Springer spaniel but gets meaner by the end. Nice comedy turns from Pyeatt and Painter, about as different in physical type as two wives could be.

Not much to knock on Communicating Doors.


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