I would have said that the October chill had solidified resolve in the Dallas theater community, but temperatures have reached the upper 80s and lower 90s, so there's some other explanation for the bold confidence displayed in this month's productions. 11th Street Theatre Project offers up one of its simplest but most eloquent pairings of one-acts ever in Two by Tim, which showcases consecutively the melancholy and the wicked moods of Dallas playwright Tim Hatcher.
Two by Tim is the modestly decked-out evening, overseen by 11th Street's artistic director Lisa Cotie, that you might miss among flashy and adventurous current shows from the likes of Our Endeavors, Teatro Dallas, Undermain, Kitchen Dog, and Echo Theatre. Overlooking it would be a shame, for rarely before has the 11th Street habit of sticking the audience onstage with the actors so benefited the author's personal conceits: The subtle treasures of his scripts are more conspicuous in close quarters. Hatcher's Bartleby: The True Story and Family Room present, respectively, the stories of a man whose soul is too pure for his own earthly salvation and of a suburban family who must be corrupted by sticky temptation to save their over-bleached souls.
Bartleby: The True Story is based on Herman Melville's 1853 short story about an unfortunate New York legal clerk whose literary aspirations promise to lift him out of his miserable circumstances. Melville told the story from the point of view of the lawyer boss, a crassly practical and materialistic fellow who regards Bartleby as a bit of a freak for his desire to rescue humanity from its cruelty and shortsightedness by exposing those weaknesses. Hatcher has put the fatally earnest Bartleby (Kevin Keating) at center stage now, recounting his work-mule mother's depressing marriages first and then, upon reaching adulthood, the constant requests to compromise his talents from lawyers and publishers alike. Bartleby: The True Story is performed without costume changes and with just a stool at center stage, but the actors do all the facial and vocal transformations necessary to render this murky memory play with savage detail. Kevin Keating is gratifyingly circumspect and effective in the title role, but he also has a safety net woven of gold threads in three supporting players: Hazel Beasley, Erik Knapp, and Tom Eppler. Playing everything from prostitutes to asylum guards, intolerant bosses to sympathetic publishers, this remarkable trio creates a gallery of portraits that prove indelible in just minutes flat.
The second act of the evening, Family Room, aims its satiric sensibility at a rather well-scored target -- repressed middle-class Anglo suburbanites -- but does it with a voracious sexual intensity that makes the comedy seem startling and dangerous. The Penchant family, composed of mother Ruth (Sue Birch), father Bob (Kevin Grammer), and kids Johnny (Rick Shew) and Susan (Michele Lainevool), are the new tenants in a home whose family room contains a mysterious pipe-like protuberance that leaks a sweet discharge and becomes an object of inexplicable yet increasingly desperate fascination for all of them. The tube becomes a hole, the family is first frazzled then hopelessly fractured, and suddenly the psychosexual implications of the Tobe Hooper-Spielberg flick Poltergeist rise to the surface, with menacing but unarticulated carnality replacing the supernatural vandalism. In retrospect, it's a canny summation of the naughty stuff you thought about but couldn't express as the idyll of family life started to hinder you like a chastity belt in restless adolescence.
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