This is your bat signal. If, like me, you need rescuing from the dumbed-down high-dollar hillbilly hogwash passing itself off as an important “world premiere” right now at that shiny Arts District venue, then The Adventures of Flo and Greg at the humble Bath House Cultural Center is here to help.
Briana Pozner’s refreshingly quirky play about two lonely people who imagine themselves to be superheroes won Echo Theatre’s Big Shout Out international playwriting contest, beating more than 80 entries. Performing in it are a pair of impressive newcomers to Dallas theater, Chandler Ryan (as Flo) and Matt Holmes (Greg).
The actors are great. The play is great. And the theater is nearly empty.
What a letdown to see only a dozen patrons at the Saturday matinee performance reviewed. This play, its playwright and its cast deserve way more love. (At least try to get there for the 8 p.m. Thursday, September 24, performance, when Pozner will be there in person.)
It is hard to sell a new piece of offbeat comedy such as Flo and Greg. Echo’s 90-minute production is labeled a “workshop,” though it has been fully staged by director Terri Ferguson and given a precisely detailed set by scenic designer Randy Bonifay.
The rhythm of the writing is so weird and wonderful. Pozner punctuates the eccentric dialogue with squeaks, shrieks and stretches of silence (never has the wait for a printer to spit out a piece of paper been so funny … and then there’s the blow-up mattress). So many new plays sound like their writers would rather be typing for TV or movies but have settled for live theater just to bring words to life. The Adventures of Flo and Greg works so well at the Bath House because it is a real stage play acted by real people in real time. In any other medium, its unique qualities would be lost.
Director Terri Ferguson has found ideal acting partners in Chandler Ryan and Matt Holmes, both recent graduates of the University of Oklahoma and young enough not to have picked up self-conscious bad acting habits. They throw themselves willy-nilly into their performances as Flo and Greg, characters who try to conquer multiple neuroses by pretending to be crime-fighters named Vigilante Spider and Dangeroso Feline.
How the two team up in the play is the part of the story too good to give away in much detail. To shorthand it, jobless Flo lives alone and hasn’t left her compulsively cleaned apartment in 16 months. The play opens with her phone call to her mother, explaining why she’s skipping family Thanksgiving (again) because of what she says might be the same mysterious illness that briefly felled Marianne Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility. Flo’s life is defined by her favorite books, arranged by color of dust jacket on shelves above her cat-quilt-covered single bed.
Greg enters Flo’s life through her second-story window, a bit of physical comedy Ferguson has staged to be funny every time. Dressed in a red cotton jumpsuit, gloves, knee pads and goggles, Greg in his guise as Vigilante Spider demands immediate refuge from his nemesis, the “Female Groper” victimizing the neighborhood. Crouched under Flo’s desk, Greg seems nuts but not threatening. Flo’s happy for the company, willing to agree to Greg’s “unbreakable bond of secrecy.”
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In return visits, always through that window, Greg and Flo share their mutual struggles with mental health. When he sees her reach for anti-anxiety pills, he stops her by singing a song about state capitals. He urges Flo to listen to loud music, saying “we have muted the world with our solace.” They are made for each other, though how far a romance built on delusions can go is too much reality for this play to ponder.
With her doe eyes, wide mouth and bouncy ponytail, gamine Ryan is a lovely pixie dream-girl as Flo. But behind her character’s tearful outbursts and ditzy awkwardness is something to relate to: a lonely heart wanting to connect without fear of rejection.
As Greg, Holmes goes red-faced as his character tries not to explode with emotions, thus frightening Flo away.
Some of the best moments between these actors happen when they’re not talking. In her eyes, we see her wondering if Greg’s too far gone. When she suggests he spend the night, he looks panicked, happy, panicked again and then just shy. How these actors use their faces is how actors in the theater should always use their faces.
The Adventures of Flo and Greg continues through September 26 at Echo Theatre, Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive. Tickets $15-$20 at 214-904-0500 or echotheatre.org.