Family Outings

At a recent performance by the new ChelseaPark Productions troupe at the Trinity River Arts Center, the lights came up for intermission between two one-acts and half a dozen patrons headed for their cars. That effectively diminished the audience by a third.

It's a tough time to get a new theater company up and running, and unfortunately ChelseaPark comes out of the chute with a rotating repertory that includes just one pretty good little play, Birds of the World by Jennifer Camp, and two pretty awful ones, All Tiny Kiss by Olivia Laney Edwards and A Matter of Blood by Molly Moroney.

That Moroney is one of the two ChelseaPark founders and producers (along with C.J. Critt) explains why someone would stage a play as inept as A Matter of Blood. Even as a vanity production, this 90-minute work of warmed-over Southern hash should never have been put on the boards. Better it get buried under them.

Moroney's play focuses on three middle-aged sisters fighting over a family fortune. Biggest problem with the script, other than the cringingly terrible dialogue--"I don't like having a queer for a sister! It sickens me!"--lies in a huge technical flaw that becomes apparent during what's supposed to be the shocking climax.

The trio of aunts--a butch librarian (Julie Mayfield), a skinny simpleton (Rebecca Graham) and a rich bitch (Linda Comess)--wrest control of their dead sister's will (and the large family manse in New Orleans) from a greedy nephew, Trevor (T.A. Taylor, hamming it up so hard he should be wearing pineapple slices). Determined to raze the home so he can develop the property, Trevor resorts to arson. And how does he go about it? He sneaks up to the attic (where all the scenes take place beforehand), douses everything with gasoline and lights a match. The play ends with Trevor holding said match, saying, "Now you see it, now you don't." Blackout.

So, OK, Trevor the wily bidnessman doesn't realize he'll be blackened like an Emeril Lagasse entrée by standing in a room soaked with accelerant? It's like the old joke about the guy who finds his wife in bed with his business partner. The husband holds a gun to his own head, and when his wife giggles, says, "Don't laugh! You're next!"

Dumb. Just totally dumb. And I haven't even mentioned the play's gaggy subplot about a brother-in-law who's a rapist or the scenes where characters sit alone in the attic and talk to themselves aloud for no reason whatsoever. As Southern gothic murder mysteries go, A Matter of Blood doesn't quite meet the lofty dramatic standards set by Matlock.

Better to judge ChelseaPark's potential by its production of Jennifer Camp's lovely one-act, Birds of the World. The beautifully written, achingly sensitive script addresses the pain of losing a child, whether he is yet unborn or 21 years old.

Sheila Landahl plays Claire, a dedicated bird-watcher married to Phillip, a salesman played by Bob Downs. In a series of vignettes that leap forward and back in time, we learn how Claire and Phillip meet, fall in love, nearly break up and then rejoice at the birth of their only son, Buddy (Regan Adair). Named for Jack Lemmon's good-guy character in The Apartment, Buddy serves as narrator in the play, reciting the facts of his parents' up-and-down relationship, right up to the point where they have to cling to each other as they face a devastating death in the family.

Camp's writing is spare and elegant. Claire and Phillip are described as people who "tiptoe around the bigger emotions." Camp has Claire dream of marriage in avian terms, like the blackbirds that mate for life. But instead, Claire must watch as Phillip migrates away from her, torn up by Claire's repeated miscarriages. Both are terrified of getting too attached to one another or to another unborn child. When Buddy arrives, they smother their baby chick with love, determined to keep him in the nest as long as possible.

The acting in Birds of the World is quiet and natural. Regan Adair, who over the past year has become one of Dallas' best young actors (see him next in WaterTower Theatre's season opener, You Can't Take It With You), brings a lovable sweetness to Buddy. Even when he steps aside to observe Claire and Phillip from a distance, he's a strong presence onstage.

Nice directing here by C.J. Critt (based on work done by Nikki Flacks for another production). But the decision to insert music cues, like a movie soundtrack under the play, was a bad one. We could tell the characters' marriage was in trouble without hearing snippets of Neil Diamond crooning "Love on the Rocks."

The third play in ChelseaPark's rep is All Tiny Kiss, but it's not really a play at all. It's spoken prose, a sort of short story made long by being recited over 60 minutes by chain-smoking actress Sara Rankin Weeks.

Writer Olivia Laney Edwards goes into excruciatingly redundant detail of a daughter's rocky relationship with a mother who's losing her faculties to Alzheimer's. They take a trip to Europe that's ruined by the mother's frailty. Mom goes to a nursing home and forgets how to use a telephone. Daughter obsesses over the cabbage soup diet and The Wizard of Oz.

"Looking through your purse, checking," the daughter says a dozen times in this droning monologue. "What do you think you'll find this time? The connections in your mind that are fragile?"

During the interminable hour of this "play," my mind went fragile, too, and disconnected, wandering far away and landing in a happier place where troubles melt like lemon drops. Bad writing like All Tiny Kiss should stay on the page and off the stage.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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