A comedy about terminal illness? That's the ticket at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' production of the late Scott McPherson's 1991 play Marvin's Room.
An absurd, off-kilter tone is established in the opening scene. Middle-aged Bessie (Cindee Mayfield) sits in her doctor's office, patiently watching her inept physician (Nye Cooper) chase cockroaches and fumble her blood tests. At home Bessie cares full-time for her bedridden father, Marvin (who's never seen), and her dotty, elderly Aunt Ruth (Susan McMath Platt), who thinks the cure for everything is to "make stinky" three times a day. Bessie stays calm while all around her is chaos. But late at night, as she sits alone in the kitchen, she allows herself to sag a little under all her burdens.
When it turns out that Bessie has leukemia, the same disease that killed her mother years before, hope lies in the possibility of bone marrow donation, either from her disaster-prone sister, Lee (Sue Loncar), or Lee's young sons, Charlie (Taubert Nadalini) and Hank (Matt Savins). The trio is summoned to Florida from Ohio, where they've been living in a shelter following Hank's adventure in arson, which claimed their house and half the neighborhood.
So the gimmick is a "stuckinna" plot that has troubled relatives stuck in a small house in tense circumstances. One by one the bone marrow test results come in. Will Bessie be saved by a match? Or will Hank strike one and set the place on fire?
The soapy, melodramatic contrivances of Marvin's Room give way to the quiet grace of fine performances by the Contemporary cast, directed by Cynthia Hestand. Loncar and Mayfield, who also played sisters in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, click especially well in scenes together—Loncar's big bluster countered by Mayfield's subtler moves. Savins and Mayfield share a lovely exchange that has his tough-kid character soften up in the presence of his empathetic, if too saintly, aunt. And Cooper takes what could be a goofy role as the stumblebum doc and makes him a clumsy sweetheart. As the doc's brother and slightly simple-minded assistant, Reg Platt makes the simple act of carrying a cup of coffee into a moment of pure physical comedy.
On its surface, this play is a disease-of-the-week weepy, drawn from the ilk of Steel Magnolias. But it does capture some of the surreal aspects of illness, from the caretaker's and patient's perspective. Bessie is both, and right to the end, she keeps us smiling through her pain.
The crucial question at a performance of Whodunnit, now onstage at Theatre Three, isn't who did it; it's how long will it be before it's done? Anthony Shaffer's two-act mystery game attempts to engage the audience in a complicated guess-who, dressed up as one of those English drawing room murders a la Agatha Christie. But long before the killer is revealed—like, roughly one hour and 50 minutes before the end of the two-hour play—any interest in the goings-on will fade. It's a slipshod production and the 1982 play, from the author of the much better Sleuth, is a lox.
Hard to tell, however, which is worse, script or production. This is Theatre Three back to its sad old tricks. The only way to salvage Whodunnit would be to lavish sophisticated staging on it, something the little playhouse in the Quadrangle isn't up to. The scenic design by Jac Alder, meant to represent a stately mansion, is a collection of rickety, recycled furniture from other shows (or it looks that way). Set dressing is so sloppy the tablecloths aren't even hemmed. Working on a tight budget is one thing. Being obvious about it is another. Passing off the aesthetics of a high school play as professional work only adds insult to penury.
Details matter in a theater that seats the audience an arm's reach from the actors, and sharper attention to detail might have helped Whodunnit.
The first act finds a collection of typically Christie-esque characters invited to dinner at the country home of a London lawyer (Kevin Keating). Among them is the unctuous Andreas Capodistriou (Bob Hess) who takes each guest aside to reveal a scandal juicy enough to serve as motive for blackmail. They're a scurvy bunch, including a rear admiral (Garrett Schenck) who likes to rear young naval cadets, a society lady pretending to be blind (Terry McCracken) and a titled nobleman (Jordan Willis) who's a fake. Everyone has a motive for killing the blackmailer, just like in Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.
Act 1 concludes with the beheading of Capodistriou by a character we don't see, although we do get a quick glimpse of a blood-spurting, headless corpse so phony it elicits laughs, not screams. The second act is supposed to deliver a whammy of a surprise. The characters seen earlier are all actors hired by a talent agent to play out a scripted murder mystery in costume. When the police inspector (Hess again) arrives, they each claim to be innocent of the real murder. A taped voiceover instructs the audience to look for clues—too bad the show itself doesn't have one.
Directed by Kerry Cole, Theatre Three's staging is an exercise in dead acting and badly executed English accents (except for McCracken, who is English). It's sometimes difficult to follow Shaffer's serpentine switches in plot and personas. A few glimmers of perverse wit in the dialogue arise—lines about "poopdeck pederasty" and jokes about "monkey scrotum" notwithstanding—but they are sunk by actors who rush and mush Shaffer's words.
Little attempt is made to incorporate any of the quick changes or slapstick visuals suggested in the script. They could have had a lot more fun with Whodunnit. So the real mystery is, why didn't they?
Reasons for Referral by Dallas writer Lacy Lalene Lynch is getting its first production right now at the Hub Theatre's "Fringe Festival" of new works in Deep Ellum. From the look of it, Lynch seems to have been heavily influenced by repeated viewings of My So-Called Life.
Her so-called drama unfolds like an amateur mental health pageant performed by a slightly older Angela Chase and Brian Krakow (the main characters of the short-lived ABC series). In Lynch's version, college student Jill (Danielle Reeves) and her friend Jack (Nathan Jacobs)—Jack and Jill, get it?—suffer from a complex mix of complexes. She's bipolar, he's chronically depressed and they talk about it nonstop for 70 minutes. A six-member Greek chorus stands frozen behind them, piping up now and then to deliver voicemail messages and to turn into doctors, parents and characters called "Likes to Talk Loud Girl" and "Frat-tastic."
Lynch's script employs the weak techniques of a fledgling playwright trying to deliver a heavy message. Jack and Jill go from zero to hysteria far too quickly, and Lynch doesn't give us reasons to care when one of them descends into madness and commits suicide. This comes after a scene where doctors pour pills over Jack's head (come on, pass those dolls around!).
In transitions, musician Jordan Barrick, sitting stage left, strums on a guitar, sounding ever so much like an out-of-tune imitator of the So-Called Life soundtrack. At the end of the play, singer Layne Lynch even sings "Silent Night"—right off the Christmas episode where Angela helped the homeless girl. Jill even reads sad stuff from her journal, just like Angela did, or maybe that was Doogie Howser.
Director Atseko Factor, forgetting perhaps that this is live theater and not a TV show, has kept the action rigidly static. Jill stays mostly in one spot, obscured completely by a large pillar from where I was sitting. When they do move, the actors simply march in a circle, shouting, at one point, "Faggot! Loser!" This is the third show in a month that I have seen which has featured the circle-marching technique in lieu of actual choreography. Lot of that going on.
Anyway, there aren't good reasons to recommend Reasons for Referral. Lynch should consider this piece a beginner's exercise and learn from her mistakes.
Oh, and to the people who brought the noisy baby to the Sunday matinee: What are you, crazy?