Walking on Eggshells
They talk, we listen. Stripped down to basics, that's live theater. And in two new productions--the warm and funny Visiting Mr. Green at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and the eerily prescient Humpty Dumpty at Second Thought Theatre (relocated to Addison)--the actors do the talking part so well that we in the audience barely breathe for fear of missing a word.
Both shows feature performances that improve the material they're working with. Like virtuoso musicians playing the heck out of practice pieces, the six actors in the two plays do masterful work that elevates the meaning of their connect-the-dots scripts. The result is a sly bit of seduction. We come out loving these plays--but it's really the acting that's taken our breath away more than anything.
Man, has there ever been a better run of good work on Dallas stages than in the past two months? The best actors, directors and scenic designers all seem to be employed in ways that play to their strengths and push them in new directions. Big and small, theaters are taking bolder risks in staging productions that appeal to theatergoers (and actors) looking for a bit of a thrill.
This streak of excellence has a galvanizing effect. Better shows at the established theaters, including recent sell-out runs of the musicals Wicked at Fair Park and Crowns at Dallas Theater Center, inspire theater-lovers to venture out to sample newer companies such as Second Thought. Darker offerings, including Kitchen Dog's Bug, Undermain's Margo Veil, Theatre Quorum's Honour or WingSpan's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (still running at the Bath House) appeal to the more effete types who wouldn't dare be caught waltzing into a commercial hit like Wicked.
It's good to see the seats filled everywhere. For professional actors and directors, the better the box office, the more opportunities there are for return engagements. Steady work keeps the top talent busy and helps them develop a following.
Among the best actors on any stage in town right now is Ian Leson. Anyone who saw Tracy Letts' edgy, riveting Bug--a show that created such frantic buzz that the KDT box office was turning away 20 to 30 people a night--will want to catch Leson in whatever he does next. Bug was an acting bonanza, and those lucky enough to see it witnessed Leson's explosive performance as a crack-huffing (and very naked) conspiracy theorist. Now he's showing off his versatility in other ways in CTD's Visiting Mr. Green.
A 1998 SMU theater grad who's been working nearly nonstop for the past few years at Kitchen Dog, WaterTower, Risk Theatre Initiative and the Shakespeare Festival, among others, Leson is the real deal--lithe, handsome and superbly subtle in comedy or drama. In Visiting Mr. Green, he's Ross, a young Manhattan junior exec whose life is disrupted after a near-miss car accident that was his fault. Sentenced to six months of community service, Ross must make weekly Thursday night visits to Mr. Green (Jerry Russell), the 86-year-old Jewish widower he almost mowed down.
This odd couple detests each other on sight. Mr. Green keeps strict kosher, including four separate cabinets for proper dishes and glassware. Ross is a nonobservant Jew who finds the old man's cluttered apartment more than a little stifling. Everything's just as it was before the sudden death of Mr. Green's wife of 59 years. It takes a few bowls of take-out chicken soup to bring the two men anywhere close to real conversation. "How are you?" Ross asks. Answers Mr. Green, "What's the good of complaining?" And so it goes for a good while as they dance around each other.
It's a well-crafted, if porous, script. Playwright Jeff Baron keeps shifting the focus. Sometimes he has a comedy about generational differences (Mr. Green doesn't even own a TV and thinks American Express is a train). Then he turns serious with discussions of persecution and tolerance. After Ross reveals that he's gay (just before intermission), Visiting Mr. Green obsesses on the personal sacrifices made in the name of religion. Being gay and Jewish doesn't compute for Mr. Green, who, it turns out, hasn't spoken to his only daughter in decades because she married a Gentile. Ross sets about getting father and daughter to reconcile. The play ends just like an after-school special, including a big, long hug.
Funny how predictability can be surprisingly satisfying, though. Visiting Mr. Green hits all the right buttons, including getting lots of laughs when it needs them and then moving its audience to sniffles in the final moments. Leson and Russell (he's played Mr. Green twice at Stage West in Fort Worth) relax into their roles and avoid becoming overly sentimental. Under the direction of Rene Moreno (who makes each moment count in everything he works on), the actors are sweet and generous, gracing the dialogue with the tiniest flourishes--a perfectly placed pause here, a well-timed look there. It's the art of acting at its finest.
Powerful performances by five good actors also make Humpty Dumpty well worth its ticket price. Eric Bogosian wrote this two-act drama--about city folk who fall apart in a crisis far from home--as a reaction to the Y2K scare, but it's gained an even eerier relevance since 9/11 and seems almost too prescient in the wake of the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster. Second Thought Theatre's production marks the play's Southern premiere.
Two young and gorgeous media-centric couples--Nicole and Max, Spoon and Troy--descend on an expensively renovated barn in upstate New York for a winter week's vacation. Juggling cell phones, laptops and handhelds, they revel in their superiority over the hicks in the sticks. They admit to reading People and watching the Oscars, but, says Max (Steven Walters), "When we do it, it's ironic."
Max is a struggling writer with one New Yorker short story in print. Wife Nicole (Meridith Morton) edits other writers for a big publishing house. Troy (Derek Phillips) is a slick L.A. guy who churns out dumb screenplays and hopes Nicole will option his novel. Actress-girlfriend Spoon (Elise Reynard) contorts into yoga poses and babbles about trying to "realign" by "taking a little break from alcohol."
They are a quartet of obnoxious pretensions. Nibbling edamame, gourmet cheeses and caviar, the couples joke about throwing an orgy in their mountain hideaway. But before any clothes come off, the lights go off in a mysterious power failure. A creepy-humpy caretaker named Nat (Robert Prentiss) shows up with lanterns, candles and a big, sharp axe for cutting firewood. And from there, the play veers off into a rather chatty, post-millennial stopover in the Twilight Zone.
Bogosian forces these characters to explore their own weaknesses when they're cut off from everything familiar. After weeks go by and there are still no phones or lights, they go a little desperate and crazy. They shiver from cold and live on eggs scavenged by Nat from nearby farms (inspiring Nicole to repeat the nursery rhyme referenced in the title). When the foursome considers leaving, Nat hints ominously at bikers, hillbillies and mountain lions just beyond the front door.
When he wrote it, Bogosian must have thought audiences would find the situation pretty far-fetched. He tosses in mentions of Deliverance, Failsafe and Outbreak just for safe measure. But Humpty Dumpty is all too believable in these days of failing levees and quivering power grids. Except in reality, instead of hillbillies or bikers, it would be CNN's Anderson Cooper lurking outside.
The cast makes their terror palpable, taking their time and building tension to a snapping point. Prentiss, always good playing the strangely attractive loner, gives off a sexy vibe as Nat that fires up scenes with the freaked-out Nicole and the cider-chugging Spoon. In that role, Reynard, who'll soon re-team with Walters as the young couple in Classical Acting's Gift of the Magi, makes a staggeringly impressive transition from happy bimbo to shattered soul. Director Matthew Gray achieves some exciting work with a script that goes a bit long tiptoeing toward its final shock.
Gotta say, with cracking shows like Mr. Green and Humpty Dumpty, we've had a great fall.
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