High culture in the 'burbs

Driving to Mesquite to see a provocative, world-premiere play by a talented Texas playwright? Jeez, what's next--performance art by a radical African-American collective in Garland? Actually, you shouldn't be surprised that a stately construction like the Mesquite Arts Center, which sticks out like a good tooth among the day-care centers and drive-in burger joints of the area, has begun to make a genuine contribution to North Texas culture. Just be heartened, and see it as part of a trend that includes the stimulating premieres by Mark D. Fleischer at Plano Repertory Theatre and the decidedly non-traditional world-premiere musicals imported by Lyric Stage's Steven Jones to the also lovely Irving Arts Center. C'mon, Garland Center for the Performing Arts, how about making waves with new work by Texas artists--or at the very least, surprise everyone with some uncharacteristic programming by a more obscure international playwright?

In any case, a hearty round of applause to the Mesquite Arts Council, which has given a generous grant to Theatre Quorum, a new company co-founded by 11th St. Theater Project regulars Angela Wilson and Carl Savering. He's the barrel-chested, bespectacled actor with the shaved head who plays everything from sad blue-collar cuckolds to volatile, suffering ex-football players; she's the actress-playwright whose plays have been produced and workshopped at tiny theaters in New York and feature, not coincidentally, the kind of juicy, regular-guy-takes-a-wrong-turn roles in which Savering specializes.

Together, they chose as their inaugural production the world premiere of Wilson's The Ladies Room. This is a flawed but incendiary, sometimes unbearably honest portrait of a desperately ill man whose belated struggle for female companionship entangles his bitter, boozy mother, his callous best friend, and a young waitress who surprises herself with the depth of emotion she feels for a total stranger.

If you enjoyed Black Velvet and george and scherezade, sad sad sad, Angela Wilson's duet of one-acts given a brisk staging last year by 11th Street Theater Project's Lisa Cody, you will find plenty to savor in The Ladies Room, directed by Elizabeth Ware. Her new script proves that, though Wilson sometimes falls into the traps every new playwright's talent sets for itself, she has a startlingly focused voice, a lilt of dialogue all her own, and the kind of bottomless sympathy for a pet cross-section of humanity that has fueled the most original playwrights of any era.

While Wilson has an utterly naturalistic ear for the heartbreaking negotiations in everyday conversation, she has to work on the structure of her scripts. The Ladies Room benefits greatly from a quartet of soulful performances--maybe too much so. Talented actors can hinder a writer's development if their flash and credibility carry everyone's attention smoothly across some narrative potholes.

The road doesn't start to get patchy in this play until the second act. The first half of Wilson's corrosive challenge to the inevitability of redemption in relationships would, with just a slight beefing-up of two roles and a more pointed ending, make a truly great one-act play. As done in this production, it's a marvel of reparative humor and barely restrained sorrow coming from four people who refuse to let themselves be haunted by their dead-end lives: Chris (Carl Savering), an ex-football player whose 18-year-bout with cancer has consumed him almost as much as his perpetual failure with women; his best friend, Charlie, an oily, smug host of hotel karaoke nights whose support of the ill, ungainly Chris since childhood has never eclipsed his own pursuit of pleasure; and Christine (Patricia Ivey), the caustically resentful mother of Chris who does everything for her helpless, forlorn adult son but breast-feed him. Somewhere between the machinations of buddy Charlie and momma Christine, an unsuspecting young single mother named Angie (Laurel Whitsett) is recruited for a "blind date" with Chris, who, with his colostomy bag, unpredictable sense of balance, and long-ignored sexual needs, ain't exactly the catch of the day.

These big, clumsy moths flutter against each other in the claustrophobic dimness of a hotel bar called "The Ladies Room." We watch as Chris and Charlie earnestly dredge up their past sexual exploits for comfort; and Chris begins a courtship of Angie that's as clumsy as it is ingratiating; and Charlie and Christine conduct a smirky, tongue-flicking flirtation that, we find out in the second act, rests on a foundation of mutual love-hate for Chris. Playwright Angela Wilson's unique gift--the ability to charm and disturb us with the same characters, without resorting to grotesque neurotic parodies--looms large and gratifying here.

Things don't so much unravel during the second act of The Ladies Room as they are stretched until they snap. The thread of characters, especially among the three people who revolve around the needy Chris, doesn't extend comfortably through two more scenes. The playwright has remained so focused on the central character and the people who endeavor, often half-heartedly, to meet his needs, she walls her characters behind brick after brick of repetitious recrimination and need. When Angie visits Chris and his mother at their house for dinner, we already know that Christine is bitter, and we get more heaping helpings of the same. The intriguing character of Charlie hangs pretty much in the background, while Chris becomes couch-ridden and mute, and Angie finds, with sudden desperation, how much she has needed to feel needed, even if only for a short time. Basically, pretty much the entire second act is devoted to emotional fallout from the first act. However much these unhappy people need it, the play doesn't supply the audience any enlightening, surprising, or even new information about anyone. Usually new playwrights have problems staying the course; Angela Wilson might have driven down a few more detours with her creations, especially Charlie and Christine, if only to let us feel we'd taken a full evening's theatrical journey with them.

All that said, Wilson's precise and poignant language, and her confidence in using it to introduce us to believable people, finds stirring expression with this cast. The eloquently awkward Carl Savering doesn't turn The Ladies' Room into the one-man show it could've been, but he commands his scenes with wounded authority and just a touch of menace. Laurel Whitsett, who spends much of her time in the first act just fending Chris away, appeals (but doesn't turn wussy) far beyond the finite borders of her good-natured character. Martin Holden spins a macho memory with snaky, smirky enthusiasm, so much so you want more of him. And Patricia Ivey as Christine, a sort of suburban Texas peach who's turned, never courts audience approval as the fed-up mother of a dying son (she didn't seem to be projecting her soft voice as much as the other actors during the first act; her dialogue became much clearer by the second).

By all means, get yourself out to the Mesquite wilderness and see The Ladies Room even if the Theatre Quorum's still under construction. Appreciate the fine acting, flinch at the brutal honesty, and ask yourself what a playwright as promising and compassionate as Angela Wilson will come up with next.

The Ladies Room runs through April 4. Call (972) 216-8131.

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Jimmy Fowler