Honorable thieves

As the opening-night world premiere of Fugitive Pieces progressed, I couldn't shake the idea that playwright Caridad Svich was less inspired by Samuel Beckett--Waiting for Godot, specifically--than liable for intellectual theft under some copyright law. Anything worth having is worth stealing, as a colleague once observed, but the showcase production of Kitchen Dog Theater's Second Annual New Works Festival is a tad shameless and sweaty-pawed as it rummages through Beckett's grimy trenchcoat pockets before our eyes. The line between homage and larceny is more a matter of the viewer's sense of proprieties (or is that improprieties?); I'd be a lot less concerned with the crime if I didn't feel that Caridad Svich has accomplished little more than a humanitarian, vaguely Christian rewrite of the exact same themes that Beckett had claimed decades ago. If you're gonna lift someone's wallet, use the purloined cash to buy something shiny and new, I say.

Still, you can't deny that there are passages of cruel wit, rousing compassion, and a generally impressive grasp of how opposites reflect each other in Fugitive Pieces. And there is no small satisfaction in watching a cast this talented speak profane poetry with such mastery and breadth of tone. You can argue endlessly over who is dominant in the theatrical process--writer, actor, or audience--but when the yammering has died, actors with real ability can apply their craft like a whip to bring the other two down on their knees.

The program credits Dan Day as director of Fugitive Pieces, but Kitchen Dog company members Tim Johnson and Chris Carlos stepped in during periods of his absence. That the performances are so assured and consistent and tuned in to the silly and scary situations the characters are plopped into speaks oodles about how organically the Dog has merged its members' sensibilities. Two collaborating directors can create a disaster, three a carnival. Kitchen Dog has clearly reached a stage in its artistic evolution where, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, they're all lying in the same gutter and looking at the same stars.

With brief breaks for guitar-strumming and cymbal-whispering folk reveries, this show follows two train-hoppers, Downcast Mary (Tina Parker) and Troubled John (Bill Lengfelder), as they travel across the United States. Different from each other in almost every possible way--Mary is temperamental, violent, nihilistic, disdainful of spiritualism, while John is childlike, perpetually bruised, and yearning for mercy and delivery--they nonetheless form a fractious partnership to weather the increasingly horrendous ordeals heaped upon them by the people they meet. Max Hartman and Samantha Montgomery play different random strangers, but in the most Godot-like half of a four-part equation of performers, they are sadistic Israfel and his disabled mother Providence, who must be carried on his back and can only say "Raaah, raaah." Watching them onstage with Mary and John vividly summoned memories of the foursome of Beckett's most famous play, with a variation that the role-playing between and among the couples--who's dependent and who's controlling, who's caring and who's wounded--is swapped more widely and rapidly. That, and they use the word "fuck" a lot. So much for innovation.

Upon first exposure to Fugitive Pieces, I can't help but be underwhelmed by its shopworn conceits about salvation, lost souls on an endless journey, and random encounters changing lives. All these are important and true, but you'd better rearrange them in startling shapes if you don't want them to call attention to their own familiarity. If playwright Caridad Svich fails to do that, actors Tina Parker, Bill Lengfelder, Max Hartman, and Samantha Montgomery sweep in heroically and revive their roles with huge gusts of precious oxygen. If Fugitive Pieces is lucky enough to get this fine a cast for other productions, I suspect the script will again garner rave reviews it doesn't deserve.

I love being surprised by a play, especially when it's an entertaining bushwhack. The quality of the surprise depends entirely on the prejudices I have upon entering the theater (yes, critics have them; H.L. Mencken called criticism "prejudice made plausible")--when I think something's gonna be great because of this playwright or that performer, and it disappoints, that's what in the critical lexicon is known as a "sucky surprise." On the other hand, when I've hauled myself into the seat with apprehension, because this show promises to be another in a long line of similar teeth-pulling exercises, and the script and the delivery are smooth and sweet as a milkshake, it's delightful to learn that I've tripped myself up with my own expectations.

Really, I should hate I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, the still hugely successful Off-Broadway sketch revue that's given a regional premiere by Theatre Three. I'm battle-fatigued from watching the war between the sexes, force-fed till I could puke with those million crazy, charming little miscommunications between Harry and Sally, the planet Mars and Venus, monosyllabic tool guys and feeling-fixated gals. Let's call the whole thing off, indeed. But Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro's book and lyrics, while they don't always refrain from jumping into this tar pit, are concerned with more attenuated truths. You're rarely treated to comedy derived from the emotional commonalities between men and women, but this show works because it lingers in this overlap, picking the weird flowers that bloom there. Both genders can feel lonely when out of relationships, stifled when in them, sexually frustrated, insecure about their appeal, frightened, etc. That you see male and female characters on the same stage vaulting in and out of these same states of bamboozlement is something of a small mutiny on the lurching battleship of conventional wisdom.

It helps, of course, that Theatre Three has assembled four such appealing, versatile performers under the astute direction of Terry Dobson. In moments when I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! does get tangled in the self-evident and the prosaic, you can savor the unforced glow of this quartet of personalities as they take us from young adulthood to the senior years, from marriage and divorce through breakup and makeup. With live piano and flute accompaniment, some speedy costume changes, and a prop here and there, we are consistently charmed and delighted by Ashley Wood, Carrie Slaughter, Linda K. Leonard, and Greg Dulcie as they play a combination of different couples who, too often, try to get as much as they can while they give as little as possible.

If writer-composers Roberts and DiPietro would only ask me, I could cut several numbers to make this show faster, funnier, and more discerning in its observations. Do we really need a tune about how ugly and depressing bridesmaids' dresses are? Nope, so nix "Always a Bridesmaid." Ditto for "Why? Cause I'm a Guy!" in which we are shocked--shocked--to learn that men don't like to clean, don't like to ask for directions, and are fond of beer and scratching themselves. Both sketches are unworthy of the inspiration that keeps the better stuff buzzing along with an electric crackle.

The best segments in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! are the ones in which the genders of the characters could be interchanged, because the grievance being displayed is so universal. In "Scared Straight," two shy singles (Slaughter and Wood) attend a dating seminar in a maximum-security penitentiary conducted by a mass murderer (Dulcie) who, himself unattached and tired of being surrounded by smooching, infatuated couples, went shotgunning for lovebirds. He bullies the two singles in the audience, drill-sergeant style, into dropping their standards and going on a date. "Tear Jerk" finds a guy (Dulcie) who hates "chick flicks" dragged to one on a date with a woman (Leonard) and has to fight tears as the film's tragic story line takes hold. "Whatever Happened to Baby's Parents?" features new parents (Slaughter and Dulcie) who have become dull-eyed, infant-obsessed strangers to their single friend (Wood).

Theatre Three's quartet of actor-singers are charming in the show's worst moments, brilliantly funny in the best. Ashley Wood is one of our indispensable talents, effortlessly effective in lunatic comedy and tear-drenched tragedy. He neatly mixes his own gentle charisma with a variety of different character chords. Carrie Slaughter, a lovely ingenue type, excels when cast against type, either as a bespectacled wallflower or a mother grimly determined to see her son to the altar. Linda K. Leonard's chattering highlight is as a woman whose life is so busy, she insists on cramming the full arc of a failed relationship into the first date. But the real revelation for me in this show is Greg Dulcie, who has in the past given polished performances that nonetheless managed to lack the illumination of real character. Whether playing an aged Jewish man who cruises funerals for dates or the mindlessly dedicated new dad who gnaws furiously at the button eyes of a teddy bear to make sure it's child-safe, Dulcie shows more zest and ingenuity inhabiting a role for a few minutes here than he has in two hours. His success is emblematic of the entire rollicking evening that is I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, in which the performers are pitch-perfect no matter how often they change for us.

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Jimmy Fowler